Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest and a strikingly innovative poet, who was torn by a lifelong conflict between these two vocations. He destroyed many of his youthful poems when he was ordained, and the slim body of work that survived was not published until years after his early death.
Eldest of nine children, he was born in Essex, in the east of England, on July 28, 1844. After Highgate School, where he won the poetry prize, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he took a double-first class degree in classics. At Balliol he was drawn to the Oxford Movement, a group of high-church Anglicans who favored more Catholic practices in the Church of England—and in 1866, Hopkins “went over to Rome,” under the spiritual guidance of John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman. After studying for the priesthood at St. Beuno’s Jesuit house in North Wales, Hopkins was ordained a Catholic priest in 1877 and thereafter served as a missioner, curate, and teacher in Jesuit schools in London, Oxford, Liverpool, Glasgow, Chesterfield, and Stonyhurst. In 1884, just five years before his death, he was appointed professor of classics at University College, Dublin, the institution founded by Cardinal Newman.
Philosophically, Hopkins was much influenced by Duns Scotus, as well as by the discipline of Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola. Hopkins’ surviving poetry, much of it written in what he called “sprung rhythm,” a ragged meter, with unusual accents indicated, deals mainly with religious topics, such as original sin (“Spring and Fall”), the wonders of creation (“Pied Beauty” and “God’s Grandeur”), the redemptive power of Christ (“The Windhover”), and the anguish of doubt (“Carrion Comfort”). Hopkins sought to see the inner truth of creation through a quality he referred to as “inscape,” derived from Scotus’ concept of “thisness” (haecceitas), which can be defined as the harmony, unity, and beauty perceived in the natural world.
Religious feeling, as well as poetic innovation, can be seen in a poem such as Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: to a young child”:
Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh, ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh,
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same;
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
The last five years of Hopkins’ life were beset by illness—constant eye pain and frequent diarrhea, now thought to be Crohn’s disease, plagued him, and he had recurring bouts of depression, now believed to be a symptom of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. His mental state was also probably affected by lifelong repressed homoerotic impulses, which he had first experienced as an Oxford undergraduate, and over which he had exercised rigorous control throughout his celibate life.
In May of 1889, Hopkins fell ill with what he first thought was rheumatic fever. He consulted a doctor, who treated him for fleabite. The illness turned out to be typhoid fever, complicated by peritonitis. The typhoid was caused by Salmonella Typhi bacteria, found in food and water contaminated by sewage in the inadequate drainage system of University College. He was moved out of his own cramped quarters at the college to a large, airy room, where he was tended by nurses from nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital. On the morning of June 8 he received the last rites of the Church, and he died at 1:30 that afternoon, at the age of forty-four. His last words were, “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”
His funeral mass, concelebrated by three fellow Jesuits, and with a large number of priests and students in attendance, was on June 11 at Dublin’s St. Francis Xavier Church. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Following his death, Hopkins’ good friend, the poet Ralph Bridges, began to submit his verses for inclusion in various anthologies, so that he became gradually known as a poet for the first time. In 1918, when Bridges had become England’s Poet Laureate, he secured the first publication of Hopkins’ collected poems in an edition of 750 copies.