Gerard Manley Hopkins was a man of intense pas­sion and intense loves, and he can best be unders­tood, per­haps, by pro­bing his four great loves.  But first it helps to know a bit about the man him­self, this grand, musi­cal poet and priest.
Gerard Hopkins was a short man – 5’3” or so – with a high-pit­ched voice.  He liked to hike and swim, enjoyed music, puns, and sket­ching, and once thought of beco­ming a pain­ter.  Nicknamed “Skin” at school and “Hop” among his fel­low Jesuits, he rare­ly used his middle name “Manley,” was some­times enthu­sias­tic, some­times melan­cho­ly, was unk­nown and lar­ge­ly unpu­bli­shed when he died, and is now reco­gni­zed as a major, expe­ri­men­tal English poet.
Born in 1844 as the eldest child of an Anglican busi­ness­man, he grew up in the London sub­urb of Hampstead, did brilliant­ly at Oxford, became a Catholic in 1866, ente­red the Jesuit Order, and was ordai­ned a priest in 1877.  Fr. Hopkins wor­ked in schools and parishes in England and Scotland, taught Classics at University College Dublin, and died in 1889 at the age of 44.  Unpublished until 1918 and lar­ge­ly unk­nown until the second edi­tion of his poems in 1930, he per­ma­nent­ly chan­ged the face of English poe­try, influen­cing such major figures as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.  Who was this Gerard Hopkins ?  We can best dis­co­ver him, I sug­gest, by pro­bing his four great loves : nature, humans, God, and words.


I. Nature : Its Beauty and Shape

     Hopkins loved nature’s beau­ty, and des­cri­bed it with rare skill and vivid images.  At 19, he wrote in his Oxford dia­ry of “moon­light han­ging or drop­ping on tree­tops like blue cob­web.”  At 21, he noted how “over the green water of the river…swallows [were] shoo­ting, blue and purple above and she­wing their amber-tin­ged breasts…, their flight uns­tea­dy with wag­ging wings.”  Lying awake one night, he saw light­ning “colou­red violet…but after­wards some­times yel­low, some­times red and blue.”  He wat­ched young lambs in spring­time “toss and toss…as if it were the earth that flung them, not them­selves.”  Whether des­cri­bing moon­light, birds, light­ning, or cavor­ting lambs, Hopkins always sought the exact detail and the accu­rate, fresh word : “blue cob­web,” “wag­ging wings,” “toss and toss.”  Loving nature, he wan­ted to make nature’s beau­ty per­ma­nent — at least in the words and images of his note­book.
     He also loved the shapes of nature.  Clouds were “repea­ted­ly for­med in hori­zon­tal ribs.  At a dis­tance their straight­ness of line was won­der­ful.  In pas­sing overhead…the splits [were] fret­ted with lacy curves and honey­comb work.”  He noted the “curves and close fol­ding” of tulip petals, and at his grand­pa­rents' home in Croydon the lawn had “half-circle curves of the scythe in paral­lel ranks.”  Even hail­stones intri­gued him, being “sha­ped like the cut of dia­monds cal­led brilliants.”  Loving nature, Hopkins loved its very shapes – its uni­que­ness of form.  This fas­ci­na­tion with uni­que­ness, spur­red by the phi­lo­so­phy of the medie­val Duns Scotus, brought Hopkins to his famous concept of “ins­cape” — a word he crea­ted to express both an object's exter­nal shape and its “inner core of indi­vi­dua­li­ty.”  In poe­try he wor­ked to cap­ture the ins­capes of nature.
In 1877, for example, he expres­sed his love of nature, shape, and indi­vi­dua­li­ty in his rap­tu­rous son­net “Spring”:


    Nothing is so beau­ti­ful as Spring–
  When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and love­ly and lush ;
  Thrush's eggs look lit­tle low hea­vens, and thrush
    Through the echoing tim­ber does so rinse and wring
    The ear, it strikes like light­nings to hear him sing ;
  The glas­sy pear­tree leaves and blooms, they brush
  The des­cen­ding blue ;  that blue is all in a rush
    With rich­ness ;  the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Notice how the tos­sing lambs of his jour­nal reap­pear in the poem, as does his inter­est in the shapes of nature : “weeds, in wheels, shoot long and love­ly and lush.”
     Another poem, “The Starlight Night,” catches his breath­less, child­like joy in dis­co­ve­ring towns, castles, dia­mond-mines, even elves in the night sky :


    Look at the stars ! look, look up at the skies !
  O look at all the fire-folk sit­ting in the air !
  The bright bóroughs, the circle-cita­dels there !
    Down in dim woods the dia­mond delves ! the elves'-eyes !

Autumn evokes a simi­lar delight in the poem “Hurrahing in Harvest”: 
    Summer énds now ;  now, bár­ba­rous in béau­ty, the stóoks ríse
    Around ;  up above, what wind-walks !  what love­ly beha­viour
    Of sílk-sack clóuds ! has wil­der, wil­ful-wávier

    Méal-drift moul­ded ever and mel­ted acróss skíes ?


No won­der Hopkins is consi­de­red one of the finest nature-poets in English.
     His famous poem “Pied Beauty” cele­brates not only nature's varie­ty but also its pecu­lia­ri­ties, as he contem­plates a cow’s hai­ry flanks, a trout’s rosy spots, a chest­nut cra­cked open by fal­ling, and the angu­lar fields of a Welsh val­ley :

    Glóry be to God for dap­pled things–
       For skies of couple-colour as a brin­ded cow ;
          For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim ;
    Fresh-fire­coal chest­nut-fálls ;  fínches' wings ;
       Lándscape plot­ted and pie­ced — fold, fal­low, and plough.            

Lándscape plot­ted and pie­ced”: again he notes nature's shapes — the plots into which farm­land is divi­ded, the contours of a field lying fal­low, the straight rows made by a plough.
Loving nature's beau­ty, Hopkins also grieves at the loss of this beau­ty.  He is a major envi­ron­men­tal poet, and his poem “Binsey Poplars” mourns the cut­ting of shade trees upri­ver from Oxford :


My aspens dear, whose airy cages quel­led,

Quélled or quen­ched in leaves the lea­ping sun,
Áll fél­led, fél­led, are áll fél­led….

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew–
Hack and rack the gro­wing green !


He also stresses nature’s beau­ty and per­ma­nence.  After wat­ching tos­sed clouds, dan­cing elm branches, tree-sha­dows on a white wall, and drying mud, Hopkins cries out, “Million-fue­lèd, nature's bon­fire burns on.”  For him, nature is a never-dying bon­fire, always chan­ging, ever brilliant, sur­pas­sin­gly beau­ti­ful.

II. Humans : Heroes, Plain People, and the Self


     Hopkins' second great love was for humans — men, women, and chil­dren.  In life, he loved his fami­ly and had many friends, lay and Jesuit, and often ended his let­ters, “Your affec­tio­nate friend.”  In poe­try, he cele­brates heroes and simple people, some brave to the point of death, others just labo­rers or sol­diers or sai­lors, or gene­rous chil­dren, or inno­cent youths.

     The grea­test hero of Hopkins' poems — except for Christ — is not a hero but a heroine, the “Tall Nun” in his ode “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”  Exiled from her native Germany by Bismarck's Kulturkampf, she and four other Franciscan nuns were sai­ling to America in 1875 when, in a swir­ling snows­torm, their ship ran aground on a sand­bar in the Thames estua­ry.  Unaided for thir­ty hours, many pas­sen­gers and crew­men per­ished from the cold or were washed over­board by fierce waves.  Amid the tumult, the “Tall Nun” stood on a table in the ship’s cabin, thrust her head through a sky­light, and kept crying out, “O Christ, Christ, come qui­ck­ly.”  Deeply moved, Hopkins began his first great poem, one of the finest odes in English, about the Tall Nun who reco­gni­zed God in her suf­fe­ring :

Ah ! thére was a héart right !
There was single eye !
Réad the unshá­peable shóck níght
And knew the who and the why.


She was “a lío­ness,” “a pró­phe­tess,” who found Christ even in the fury of a win­ter storm.  Her reward was great : “for the pain, for the /​ Pátience” she was to be with “Jésu, héart's líght, /​ Jésu, máid's són,” for all eter­ni­ty.
Other heroes are more com­mon.  One is a blacks­mith, “Felix Randal,” a Liverpool pari­shio­ner to whom Hopkins minis­te­red in his ill­ness.  Hopkins had wat­ched his strong body wea­ken — a body once “big-bóned and har­dy-hand­some” — and memo­ria­lizes him in a son­net.  In other poems Hopkins praises an altar boy's gene­ro­si­ty, a sailor's heroism, a beggar’s cheer­ful­ness, a bugler's inno­cence, a ploughman's phy­si­cal grace, and a wor­ried boy wat­ching his youn­ger bro­ther in a school play.  He praises a Welsh fami­ly for their kind­ness, and prays for a Lancashire couple mar­rying in th dull indus­trial town of Bedford Leigh. He cele­brates his favo­rite saints : the Virgin Mary, St. Dorothea, St. Thecla, St. Winefred, St. Margaret Clitheroe, and his fel­low Jesuits St. Francis Xavier and St. Alphonsus Rodriguez.  He also cele­brates his fel­low Jesuits in a comic poem I dis­co­ve­red in London in 1998.  Entitled “‘Consule Jones’” and writ­ten to a rol­li­cking Welsh melo­dy, the 48-line poem jokes about Hopkins’ fel­low theo­lo­gians at St. Beuno’s College in North Wales :

Murphy makes ser­mons so fierce and hell-fie­ry
Mothers mis­car­ry and spins­ters go mad.
Hayes pens his seven and twen­tieth dia­ry,
Bodo’ does not, there’s no time to be had.
Lund, ever you­th­ful, well vizor’d and turban’d,
Robs hives of that honey which we are to sip….


Hopkins’ regard for chil­dren ins­pi­red one of his finest and most acces­sible poems, “Spring and Fall.”  As autumn leaves fall, a young girl grieves over the loss of nature’s beau­ty. Naming her “Margaret” but stres­sing the last syl­lable — Margarét — Hopkins plays on the word's root-mea­ning : the girl is a “mar­ga­re­ta” or “pearl.”  And as this pearl mourns for the death of nature, a grea­ter sad­ness soon grows clear to the poet : love­ly young Margarét is also mour­ning for her­self.  She too will die.  “Spring and Fall” thus becomes a medi­ta­tion on nature, child­hood, growth, and death.  It is one of Hopkins' sim­plest, love­liest, sad­dest poems :

                    Spring and Fall :
                    to a young child


Márgarét, áre you gríe­ving
Over Goldengrove unlea­ving ?
Léaves, líke the thíngs of mán, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you ?
Áh ! ás the héart grows ólder
It will come to such sights col­der
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wan­wood leaf­meal lie ;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no mat­ter, child, the name :
Sórrow's spríngs áre the sáme.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expres­sed
What héart héard of, ghóst gués­sed :
It ís the blíght mán was bórn for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Like Margaret, Hopkins also suf­fe­red, and in Dublin he was depres­sed and fea­red mad­ness, pen­ning a son­net that screams in pain :


No worst, there is none.  Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schoo­led at fore­pangs, wil­der wring.
Comforter, where, where is your com­for­ting ?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief ?
My cries heave, herds-long ;  huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, wórld sor­row ;  on an áge-old ánvil wínce and síng–
Then lull, then leave off.  Fury had shrie­ked ‘No ling-
Ering !  Let me be fell : force I must be brief.’
O the mind, mind has moun­tains ;  cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fatho­med.  Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.  Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep.  Here ! creep,
Wretch, under a com­fort serves in a whirl­wind : all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

In ano­ther son­net he des­cribes him­self as “gall” and “heart­burn,” bit­ter-tas­ting, no bet­ter than the dam­ned in hell.  He knew well that a human, so lovable, is also so fra­gile, so able to suf­fer.
More com­mon­ly, though, he cele­brates the unique self­hood of eve­ry human.  Fascinated by self, he turns to dis­tinc­tive images of cam­phor, ale, and alum, of a plu­cked vio­lin, a swin­ging bell, and a flame-colo­red king­fi­sher, to des­cribe the self’s uni­que­ness.  And he includes him­self : “I find myself more impor­tant to myself than any­thing I see….Nothing else in nature comes near…this self­being of my own.”  His most eloquent poem about self­hood is his 1877 son­net “As king­fi­shers catch fire”:


Each mor­tal thing does one thing and the same :
   Deals out that being indoors each one dwells ;
   Selves – goes its self ;  myself it speaks and spells.

Yet all humans, even such glo­rious, unique selves, will per­ish and die, and only his third great love — God — can offer full hope.


III. Hopkins and God

     In God, Hopkins finds the best hope for humans.  God is the source of nature's beau­ty, a crea­tor who so loves the world that he is always present and active in his world, wor­king in his crea­tion and giving eter­nal life. Hopkins' most memo­rable poem about God is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which begins with a divine por­trait that is cos­mic, power­ful, com­pel­ling :
Thou mas­te­ring me
God ! giver of breath and bread ;
Wórld's stránd, swáy of the séa ;
Lord of living and dead….


Hopkins then grows per­so­nal, recal­ling his own ter­ror before God, most like­ly when deci­ding to become a Catholic :

        Thou hast bóund bónes and véins in me, fás­te­ned me flésh,
   And áfter it álmost únmade, what with dréad,
Thy doing : and dost thou touch me afresh ?
  Óver agáin I féel thy fín­ger and fínd thée.


I did say yes

O at líght­ning and láshed ród ;
Thou heard­st me, truer than tongue, confess
Thy ter­ror, O Christ, O God….

In such ter­ror, Hopkins finds a fear­some God of “dréad” and “láshed ród” who wants to “mas­ter” Hopkins.  But even in ter­ror Hopkins remem­bers ano­ther aspect of God, the Christ of the Eucharist, and flees to him in relief :


…where, where was a, where was a place?–
I whir­led out wings that spell
   And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the

Hopkins flees to the Eucharistic Christ as his savior and his love. In various poems he sees Christ as “hea­ven­ly Bread” and the “sweet Vintage of our Lord”;  as an Anglo-Saxon “hero of Calvary,” “hero of us,” “holiest, love­liest, bravest…Hero”;  as “Our pas­sion-plun­gèd giant risen ;  as “king,” “prince,” “high-priest,” “God-made-flesh”;  as “spouse” and “Saviour”;  as “immor­tal dia­mond”; even, in a poem about a soldier’s First Communion, as a whim­si­cal “royal ration” and “treat” “from cup­board fet­ched” — as if the Eucharist were sto­red in a kit­chen bread­box !
For Hopkins, God and Christ are always present and active in the world.  He uses a meta­phor from elec­tri­ci­ty : “The world is char­ged wíth the grán­deur of God, /​ It will flame out, like shi­ning from shook foil.”  As sheet-metal flashes in the sun, so God's pre­sence flames out in all crea­tion, almost for­cing our eyes to reco­gnize him.  Even the wild beha­vior of clouds raises his mind to God : “I wálk, I líft up, Í lift úp heart, éyes, /​ Down all that glo­ry in the hea­vens to glean our Saviour.”
Hopkins also sees God living and acting in humans.  In the son­net “As king­fi­shers catch fire,” the just man


Ácts in God's eye what in God's eye he is–
  Chríst.  For Christ plays in ten thou­sand places,
Lovely in limbs, and love­ly in eyes not his

  To the Father through the fea­tures of men's faces.

The meta­phor here is of an actor on stage : even more than an actor is Hamlet, or is Lear, or is the Fool, Christ him­self is acting in, is wor­king in you and me and eve­ry human.
     Hopkins' lovable God, final­ly, is present even in absence, pain, and death.  In his “Terrible Sonnets” of 1885, Hopkins feels that God is absent, yet still reco­gnizes him and com­plains to him : “Comforter, where, where is your com­for­ting?” or, “…my lament /​ Is cries count­less, cries like dead let­ters sent /​ To dea­rest him that lives alas ! away.”  Yet Hopkins later looks back on his pain and sees that even then God has been acti­ve­ly present with him : “That níght, that yéar /​ Of now done dark­ness I wretch lay wrest­ling with (my God!) my God.”  Whether present or absent, God is Hopkins’ firm hope and firm love, and Hopkins ulti­ma­te­ly is part of Christ :
In a flash, at a trum­pet crash,
  I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
  Thís Jack, jóke, poor pót­sherd, patch, match­wood, immor­tal
Is immor­tal dia­mond.


IV. A Poet's Delight : Words, Sounds, Rhymes, Rhythms

But the world knows Gerard Hopkins pri­ma­ri­ly as a poet, and I now turn to him as poet : as a lover of words — of their sounds and rhymes and rhythms.  In truth, per­haps Hopkins’ most obvious love is his love for words.
Even as a tee­na­ger, Hopkins loved words.  His secon­da­ry-school poems show an uncon­trol­led, ado­les­cent fas­ci­na­tion with rhythm and alli­te­ra­tion : “Rowing, I reach’d a rock,” “the dain­ty-deli­cate fret­ted fringe of fin­gers.”  At Oxford and as a Jesuit, Hopkins was fas­ci­na­ted by the mea­nings, deri­va­tions, his­to­ries, sounds, and rhythm of words, as when a Jesuit from Lancashire cal­led a grind­stone a “grind­les­tone.”  In his jour­nal he notes Irish expres­sions, Spanish accents, and an old lady who still speaks the Cornish lan­guage.  He cor­res­ponds with a friend about Semitic and Egyptian influences on Greek, and enjoys forei­gn accents, once noting, with humor, how “an Italian prea­ching in England upon Faith said ‘He zat has no face can­not be sha­ved.’”

     Hopkins had a life­long love of words and of their varie­ties.  In his poems he some­times chooses the uncom­mon word for stun­ning effect : “the móth-soft Mílky Wáy” or “my cries heave, herds-long.” Sometimes the unex­pec­ted com­mon word shocks : “I am gall, I am heart­burn.”  He incon­gruous­ly mixes tex­tures and tem­pe­ra­tures, com­bi­ning hard with soft and cold with hot : in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” win­try waves are “cob­bled foam-fleece” and snow is “Wíry and white-fíe­ry.”  He invents words with aban­don : “Goldengrove,” “Betweenpie,” “fal­low­boot­fel­low,” “onew­here,” “Churlsgrace,” “Amansstrength,” “shíp­wrack,” “down­dol­fin­ry.”  He creates hyphe­na­ted com­bi­na­tions that would puzzle a lexi­co­gra­pher : “wim­pled­wa­ter-dim­pled,” “wínd­puff-bón­net of fáwn-fróth,” “down-dug­ged ground-hug­ged grey,” and his famous “dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon.”  Like an alche­mist he trans­mutes parts of speech, tur­ning nouns into verbs (“Let him éas­ter in us,” “the just man jus­tices”), par­ti­ciples into nouns (“leaves me a lone­ly began”), and nouns into adjec­tives (“a madri­gal start”).  To streng­then a line, he omits rela­tive pro­nouns : “O Hero savest” ins­tead of “O Hero [who] savest.”  Strange verb forms delight him : “Have fáir fál­len.”  He puts excla­ma­tions into mid-sen­tence : “I wretch lay wrest­ling with (my God!) my God.”  In one poem he mixes home­ly dia­lect words (“Squandering,” “Shive”), his own com­pounds (“rut­peel,” “fíre­dint”), for­mal words (“resí­dua­ry”), and the basic, undi­gni­fied “worm.”  Rejecting rules, he forces words to be live­ly and color­ful, so as to catch the motion and verve and varie­ty — and uni­que­ness — of life.

His rhymes are like­wise wild.  To make a rhyme, he free­ly splits words bet­ween lines (“king- /​ dom,” “ling- /​ Ering”), breaks a contrac­tion (“smile /​ 'S not wrung”), and car­ries a word’s final let­ter into the next line (“wear- /​ y”).  Tradition is unim­por­tant : Hopkins, ever self-confi­dent, prizes ori­gi­nal word-music.  Refusing to be bound by mecha­nics — iam­bic penta­me­ter, for example — he invents “sprung rhythm” for fre­sh­ness and strength.  Thus, in “Binsey Poplars” (the poem about trees which had been cut down), ins­tead of nor­mal iam­bic penta­me­ter which requires ten syl­lables for five stresses (_’_’_’_’_’), Hopkins omits unim­por­tant syl­lables to make a line of only six syl­lables with five stresses : “Áll fél­led, fél­led, are áll fél­led” (’’’_​’’).  The line is stron­ger, more tel­ling — and more like the sound of an axe — because Hopkins uses what he calls “sprung rhythm” which makes a line “spring” — leap — from stress to stress, igno­ring the uns­tres­sed syl­lables.  He even gives care­ful direc­tions on how to per­form — not “read” but “per­form” — his poems.  How he loved his words !  How he loved their sounds and rhymes and rhythms !


     Such, then, was Gerard Hopkins : lover of nature, of people, of God, and of words.  This fun­ny, short lit­tle poet with a high-pit­ched voice was a play­ful man, a good friend, a fine priest, a so-so tea­cher, a poet who liked science and des­pi­sed ugli­ness.  Often eccen­tric, he was a poli­ti­cal conser­va­tive with a strong social conscience.  He felt grand ela­tion and deep depres­sion.  He was holy and loved sense-expe­rience.  He was, in short, a consum­mate indi­vi­dua­list.  And a rare, tru­ly splen­did poet.

It is good to turn one last time to a poem — to the son­net “God's Grandeur,” where with won­der­ful sounds and images Gerard Hopkins pro­claims God's pre­sence in the world while asking why men ignore God and damage his world.  Yet howe­ver much humans damage his world, Hopkins knows that God’s love­ly nature still remains fresh and, as the rising sun spreads its first light-rays like the wings of a bird, he ima­gines how God broods over the world with love and is the very rays of light :

The world is char­ged wíth the grán­deur of God.
  It will flame out, like shi­ning from shook foil ;
  It gathers to a great­ness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod ?
Génerátions have trod, have trod, have trod ;
     And all is sea­red with trade ;  blea­red, smea­red with toil ;
  And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell : the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


Ánd, for all this, náture is never spent ;
  There lives the dea­rest fre­sh­ness deep down things ;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, mor­ning, at the brown brink east­ward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost óver the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah ! bright wings.

That is how Hopkins loves nature and humans and God and words.  That is the pas­sion of a poet and a lover.


                                      Saint Joseph’s University
                                      Philadelphia, Pennsylvania