English Literature
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins

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The Life and Work of Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Victorian Priest and Poet

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest and poet during the Victorian Era, was known for his unique and innovative writing style. Born on July 28, 1844, in Stratford, Essex, Hopkins was the eldest of nine children. His parents, Kate Smith Hopkins and Manley Hopkins, were highly educated and religious individuals, instilling in him a love for music, philosophy, and literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens. Growing up, Hopkins was surrounded by a deep reverence for nature and spirituality, themes that would become prevalent in his writing.

As a child, Hopkins showed a talent for the arts, encouraged by his artistic aunt and uncles, who taught him sketching. He was also inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and the artwork of John Ruskin. This passion for sketching stayed with him throughout his life, and he often depicted plants and scenes from nature. When he moved to Hampstead, he found himself surrounded by nature, developing a deep appreciation for the outdoors, which would also influence his writing. His home was near the former residence of renowned Romantic poet John Keats, who had written about the area three decades earlier.

At Highgate school, Hopkins began honing his skills in poetry and language. In 1863, he enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford University, to study classics, with a focus on Greek and Latin. It was during this time that he met Robert Bridges, a fellow student who would later become a renowned poet, physician, and lifelong friend. Bridges would also go on to edit and publish Hopkins' works after his death.

During his time at Oxford, Hopkins converted to Roman Catholicism, causing a rift with many of his family members. This decision was sparked by a conversation with John Henry Newman, a Catholic priest, poet, and theologian. After leaving Oxford, Hopkins spent a year teaching at Newman's school in Birmingham before joining the Jesuit Order in 1868 to become a priest.

The Jesuits, also known as the Society of Jesus, are a Catholic religious order known for their missionary work and role as educators. As part of his Jesuit formation, Hopkins studied prayer, spirituality, and philosophy, particularly the works of John Duns Scotus, whose philosophy on individuality and uniqueness can be seen reflected in Hopkins' writing.

During his time as a Jesuit, Hopkins made the decision to burn all of his poetry, feeling that it was a distraction from his priestly duties. He abstained from writing for about seven years while he completed his training and studies. However, while studying theology at St. Beuno's College in Wales in 1874, he experienced a revival in his poetry writing, with his works flourishing between 1875 and 1877.

One of Hopkins' most notable works was a collection of six poems known as the "Terrible Sonnets". These poems were written during a time when he felt disconnected from his faith and spirituality. His writing often explored themes of nature, melancholy, and spirituality, using playful alliteration, musicality, and his signature sprung rhythm. Hopkins' unique voice in Victorian poetry was greatly influenced by his Catholic faith and Jesuit studies, making him a truly remarkable figure in literature.

It was during his time as a priest and educator in England, Scotland, and Ireland that Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote "The Wreck of the Deutschland," a 35-stanza ode about a shipwreck that is now hailed as one of the finest English odes. In addition to this, Hopkins composed eleven musical sonnets, including "God's Grandeur" and "The Starlight Night."

Sonnets and Odes: A Distinction

Sonnets strictly refer to 14-line poems written in iambic pentameter, while odes are lyrical poems that exalt a person, place, thing, or idea. Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" is a famous example of a sonnet, while John Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" is an ode.

Following his ordination as a priest in 1877, Hopkins served in various Jesuit schools and parishes. Amidst his religious and educational duties, he wrote about the people he encountered, his faith, his melancholy, and his environmental concerns. Some of his notable works during this time include environmental poems like "Binsey Poplars" and "Inversnaid," memorial poems such as "Felix Randal," and religious poems like "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we breathe."

Challenges and "Terrible Sonnets"

In 1884, Hopkins became a professor at a Jesuit college in Ireland. However, adjusting to life in a new country proved difficult, and in 1885 he faced a severe bout of depression, feeling disconnected from God. It was during this dark time that he wrote his "Terrible Sonnets" or "Sonnets of Desolation," including titles like "I wake and feel the fell of dark" and "No worst, there is none."

A Poet's Passing

In 1889, Hopkins wrote a final poem titled "To R.B." to his friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges, expressing his lack of inspiration for poetry. Tragically, shortly after writing this poem, he fell ill with typhoid in Dublin and passed away on June 8, 1889, at the age of 44.

Legacy and Recognition

During his lifetime, Hopkins was not recognized as a poet. He focused on his priestly duties and rarely published his works. After his death, his dear friend and renowned poet Robert Bridges collected and edited his poems, releasing them in 1918 under the title "Poems." The collection included some of Hopkins' most beloved works, such as "The Windhover," "Pied Beauty," and "Binsey Poplars."

In the 1930s and 1940s, Hopkins' popularity grew, and he is now considered a pioneer of Modernism and one of the most distinctive and influential poets of the Victorian Era. His works have inspired numerous writers, including T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney.

Contemporary of Christina Rossetti

Gerard Manley Hopkins lived during the Victorian Age alongside another English poet, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). While Rossetti also wrote about Christian themes in her children's poetry, Hopkins' writing differed from the popular styles of the era. Victorian poetry typically moved away from the Romantic idealization of nature and focused on realism, pessimism, and themes related to science and technology. However, Hopkins maintained the Romantic emphasis on nature but experimented with poetic form. He prioritized the music and rhythm of words over conforming to trends and strict guidelines for poetry. For example, instead of adhering to iambic pentameter, he used sprung rhythm, which counted the stressed syllables in a line but allowed for variations in unstressed syllables.

The Discovery of Sprung Rhythm by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins was the first to discover and name sprung rhythm, a poetic rhythm that mimics natural speech by irregularly stressing syllables. He often used markings to indicate the emphasized syllables, which readers may have been unsure of. This innovative approach to poetry has cemented Hopkins' legacy as a pioneering and influential poet of the Victorian Era.

The Rise of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Victorian Era Poet Extraordinaire

Despite initially slow sales, Hopkins's second edition of poems, published in 1930, catapulted him to fame and established him as a significant figure in Victorian Era poetry.

Robert Bridges, a British physician and Poet Laureate, was a renowned writer known for his Christian-themed poetry. On the other hand, Hopkins was celebrated for his vibrant imagery, religious and natural motifs, and unique use of language – including sprung rhythm, inventive rhymes, and alliteration. His most famous works include "The Windhover," "The Wreck of the Deutschland," "God's Grandeur," and "Pied Beauty."

One of Hopkins's favorite forms of poetry was the sonnet, which he praised for its musical quality. He experimented with the traditional 14-line Italian sonnet, altering the number of lines and syllables to fit his artistic vision. He even put some of his sonnets to music. During a difficult period in his life, Hopkins wrote six sonnets known as the "Terrible Sonnets" or "Sonnets of Desolation." These poems were penned during a time when he felt disconnected from God and lacked his usual solace. "Carrion Comfort," "I wake and feel the fell of dark," and "No worst, there is none" are all examples of these "Terrible Sonnets," not because of their quality, but because of Hopkins's melancholic state while composing them.

Things to Know About Gerard Manley Hopkins:

  • Hopkins was a prominent English poet and Jesuit priest who lived from 1844 to 1889.
  • He grew up in a devout Anglican family but converted to Catholicism while studying at Oxford University.
  • Although not widely recognized as a poet during his life, Hopkins's work gained acclaim posthumously, and he became popular by the 1930s.
  • His writing frequently explored themes of God, spirituality, nature, and melancholy.
  • Hopkins is renowned for defining and using sprung rhythm, an irregular meter that mimics natural speech.
  • He also wrote and experimented with sonnets.

But what sets Hopkins apart from other writers of the Victorian Era? While his contemporaries adhered to conventional styles, Hopkins played with sounds, rhythms, and words in his poetry. He even coined the term "sprung rhythm," which differentiated his work from the standard iambic pentameter and added a distinctive quality to his writing.

In conclusion, Gerard Manley Hopkins is remembered as a remarkable poet of the Victorian Era, known for his unparalleled style and themes. Although he initially burned his poems to avoid distractions, he continued to write after becoming a Jesuit priest, and his poetry continues to captivate readers to this day.

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