- Born: July 28, 1844, Stratford, England
- Died: June 8, 1889 (aged 44), Dublin, Ireland
- Notable Works: “Binsey Poplars”, “Pied Beauty”, “The Windhover: To Christ our Lord”, The Wreck of the Deutschland
Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) was an English poet and Jesuit priest. While he did not gain fame during his lifetime, work published posthumously established him among the leading Victorian poets.
He is remembered for his interesting writing style, particularly his innovative rhythm known as sprung rhythm, and for his use of imagery and language to explore themes such as religion and nature.
Hopkins struggled with mental health issues throughout his life, although they were undiagnosed. He died in 1889, aged 44, from typhoid fever.
Gerard Manley Hopkins – Early Life
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844 in Stratford, Essex. He was most likely the eldest of nine children to Manley and Catherine Hopkins, née Smith. Catherine was the daughter of a London physician, and Manley founded a marine insurance firm and at one time served as Hawaiian consul-general in London. He was also a churchwarden at St John-at-Hampstead for some time.
Both of Hopkins’ parents were deeply religious high-church Anglicans and Hopkins was christened at the Anglican church of St John’s, Stratford. In 1852, Manley moved the family to Hampstead.
Hopkins initial love was painting and his ambition was to do this professionally. He sketched throughout his life was inspired by the work of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, and ended up becoming a skilled draughtsman, which he later found supported his work as a poet.
Hopkins’ father was a poet himself, and published works including A Philosopher’s Stone and Other Poems (1843), Pietas Metrica (1849), and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins (1892). He reviewed poetry for The Times and wrote one novel, too.
Hopkin’s grandfather was the physician John Simm Smith, a university colleague of John Keats, and close friend of the eccentric philanthropist Ann Thwaytes. One of his uncles was Charles Gordon Hopkins, a politician of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Hopkins’ siblings were inspired by the creative arts, as well as language and religion throughout their lives and had many different careers. Millicent (1849–1946) joined an Anglican sisterhood in 1878, Kate (1856–1933) helped Hopkins publish the first edition of his poetry, Grace (1857–1945) set many of his poems to music, Lionel (1854–1952) became a world-famous expert on archaic and colloquial Chinese, Arthur (1848–1930) and Everard (1860–1928) became highly successful artists, and Cyril (1846–1932) joined his father’s insurance firm.
At the age of ten, Hopkins was sent to boarding school at Highgate School, where he stayed until 1863. Here, he practiced asceticism, on one occasion going without drinking for a week and, on another, abstaining from salt for a week.
He studied Keats while at school and was influenced to write his earliest known poem, “The Escorial” (1860). One of Hopkins’ teachers was Richard Watson Dixon, who remained his friend throughout his life.
From 1863 to 1867, Hopkins studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford. At university he became friends with Robert Bridges, who later became Poet Laureate. He was also heavily influenced by Christina Rossetti and studied with the writer and critic Walter Pater.
In 1865, Hopkins declared an ascetic intention for his life and work and, on January 18, 1866, he wrote his most ascetic poem, The Habit of Perfection. On 23 January, he included poetry in a list of things to be given up for Lent. In July, he decided to become a Roman Catholic and travelled to Birmingham to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Roman Catholic Church on 21 October 1866. This decision estranged him from his family and a number of his acquaintances.
Hopkins graduated in 1867 and was given a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham, but, on 5 May 1868 Hopkins firmly “resolved to be a religious”. Less than a week later, he burnt his poetry and gave it up almost entirely for seven years, before entering the ministry and deciding to become a Jesuit.
He began his Jesuit noviciate at Manresa House, Roehampton in September 1868, under the guidance of Alfred Weld. Almost exactly two years later, he moved to St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst to study philosophy, and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on 8 September 1870.
While Hopkins originally thought that his interest in poetry had stopped him devoting himself wholly to religion, he read Duns Scotus in 1872 and his opinion changed and he continued to write.
In 1874, Hopkins returned to Manresa House to teach classics. He also studied at St Beuno’s College, near St Asaph in North Wales.
Hopkins found life as a Jesuit difficult and failed his final theology exam. This almost certainly meant that, despite his ordination in 1877, Hopkins did not progress in the order.
The Wreck of the Deutschland and Other Poetry
In 1875, Hopkins was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate the foundering of a German ship in a storm. Therefore, he broke his seven year writing break to write “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, inspired by the Deutschland incident, which was a maritime disaster in which 157 people died, including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws.
“The Wreck of the Deutschland” was written in his unusual style, and tells of him reconciling the terrible events with God’s higher purpose. While it was accepted by the Jesuits, it was not printed by a Jesuit publication, which only added to Hopkins’ uncertainty of his own poetry.
Hopkins continued to write after this. In 1877, he wrote God’s Grandeur, an array of sonnets that included “The Starlight Night”. He also wrote “The Windhover” only a few months before his ordination, as well as “The Sea and the Skylark”.
Teaching and Sub-Ministering
Finding that, following his ordination, work was uncertain and varied, Hopkins took up duties as sub-minister and teacher at Mount St Mary’s College near Sheffield, where he taught Greek and Latin. In July 1878 he became curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London, and in December, he became curate of St Aloysius’s Church, Oxford. While here, he became a founding member of The Newman Society, established in 1878 for Catholic members of the University of Oxford.
He also moved to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow and taught at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire.
In 1884, he became professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin, but found the position difficult for a number of reasons. First, he was English and disagreed with the Irish politics of the time. He was also of a small stature (5 ft 2 in) and unprepossessing, so found he was isolated.
This caused a gloominess to his poems, which can be seen in “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, not Day”.
Hopkin’s loneliness and dislike of living in Ireland led to a lack of creative and poetic inspiration, as well as ill-health. His eyesight was failing, and he was experiencing an internal crisis. As a devout Jesuit, he decided to never publish his poems but also understood that any true poet requires an audience for both criticism and encouragement. This made him feel as if he had failed both religiously and creatively.
Gerard Manley Hopkins died of typhoid fever on June 8th, 1889. His funeral took place in St Francis Xavier Church in Gardiner Street, Dublin, and he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
It is thought that today he would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or chronic unipolar depression, which he struggled with throughout his life.
Hopkins published very few of his poems in his lifetime. Many of his poems were burnt when he became a Jesuit, but he had already sent some of his poetry to friends by this time, so they have been saved.
Hopkins struggled throughout his life, especially with depression and inner conflict surrounding his creative work and religion. This was often shown in his writing, particularly in his last sonnets that became known as the “sonnets of desolation”.
Before Hopkins, most Middle English and Modern English poetry was based on a rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of English literary heritage. This structure is based on repeating “feet” of two or three syllables, with the stressed syllable falling in the same place on each repetition. Hopkins called this structure “running rhythm”, and although he wrote some of his early verse in running rhythm, he became fascinated with the older rhythmic structure of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
Hopkins called his own rhythmic structure “sprung rhythm”, which was structured around feet with a variable number of syllables, generally between one and four syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot. He used this rhythm because he thought running rhythm made all poetry sound the same.
Hopkins uses interesting language in his poems, often contrasting two events which have no relation to each other, and leaping from one image to another to show how each thing expresses its own uniqueness.
He supported linguistic purism in English and was a fan of Old English, which became a major influence on his writing. He used many archaic and dialect words but also coined new words, as well as using alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia and rhyme.
Hopkins is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era. Because his style was so radically different from that of his contemporaries, his best poems were not accepted for publication during his lifetime, and his achievement was not fully recognised until after World War I.
Hopkins is remembered for his use of nature and religion within his poems, as well as his imagery and melancholic style. Creating a new writing rhythm known as “sprung rhythm”, Hopkins invented a new style of poetry and used unusual word combinations and poetic language to stand out from the crowd, paving the way for twentieth century poets such as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Charles Wright.
- “Binsey Poplars”
- “Pied Beauty”
- “The Windhover: To Christ our Lord”
- The Wreck of the Deutschland
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Gerard Manley Hopkins" https://englishhistory.net/poets/gerard-manley-hopkins/, November 18, 2021