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Free yourself of the ‘hurry syndrome’

22 July 2016

We can all learn from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who took the time to look at the world around him, writes Michael Burgess

“Explored beauty”: the key to understanding the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Explored beauty”: the key to understanding the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins

IN JULY 1874, the young Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins was visiting Beaumont, near Windsor Castle, when his eye was taken by the sky and the fields.

He wrote in his journal:


It was a lovely day: shires-long of pearled cloud upon cloud, with a grey stroke underneath marking each row; beautiful blushing yellow in the straw of the uncut ryefields, the wheat looking white and all the ears making a delicate and very true crisping along the top and with just enough air stirring for them to come and go gently.


It is the insight of a Victorian poet whose life, of just 44 years, and creative output have continued to inspire and enthral.

The voice of Hopkins can speak to many who are caught up in that hectic pace of movement and progress which we call the “hurry syndrome” — a syndrome that leads to a cult of immediate satisfaction, and prevents our taking the time simply to look at the world around us.

Hopkins looked at sunsets, for instance, and then he mined his repository of words to find precisely the ones that conveyed the special quality of each sunset. He likened one to golden candle wax, another to the wild mallow-flowers, and another to crimson ice. It is part and parcel of his delight and wonder at creation.

In 1870, he wrote:


I have particular periods of admiration for particular things in Nature — for a certain time I am astonished at the beauty of a tree, its shape, its effect. Then, when the passion so to speak has subsided, it is consigned to my treasury of explored beauty, while something new takes its place in my enthusiasm.


“Explored beauty” is the key to understanding Hopkins, and his key to help us to unlock the glory of this world. To those who look and attend, it will flame out like “shining from shook foil”. Hopkins knew that the biblical diagnosis of the human problem is that we cannot see properly. The sight is dulled, the ears are deaf, and the heart is cold.

Charles Birch, the Australian biologist, ecologist, and theologian, who died in 2009, wrote: “The chief difficulty with a lot of us is the poverty-stricken view we have of nature and of our total environment. We have eyes and see not, we have ears and hear not. We look at the world and it is not wonderful. Reality has no greatness, makes no demands on us.”

That is why Hopkins is a vital voice in our world today. The journals and poems are shot through with expressions of his visionary insight and delight in creation. “I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.”

For Hopkins, all this glory of the world which he describes and celebrates is nothing if it is not the work of God. Each aspect of created beauty is a sign of the perennial newness of God in “the dearest freshness deep down things”.

It was for the sake of this vision that Hopkins, after a silence of seven years, began to write poetry again. He went on to write another 50 poems, 30 of which are sonnets of one sort or another — all developing and exploring his playful fascination with the world, with God, and with words and rhythm. His Jesuit companions and friends found them difficult, and Hopkins was aware that his poetry erred “on the side of oddness”. One of his sonnets has the lines,


This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.


In the tightness of words, the poet is expressing his sense that from the beginning of his creativity he was a lone voice, almost crying in the wilderness — neither understood nor followed.

It is a voice that has continued to fascinate. There are journals, theses, and societies around the world devoted to exploring his life and work. Academics consider his work the most fruitful for research of all our 19th-century poets. OUP has now published five volumes of a projected eight-volume series of his collected works.

In many ways, the poem that ended his “elected silence”, The Wreck of the Deutschland, is his finest work. It soars to the heights of ecstasy, and plumbs the depths of death and despair to convey his vision of a world where all will be caught up in the transfiguring work of Christ’s salvation. He describes the tall nun, Gertrude:


Ah! there was a heart right!
There was single eye!
Read the unshapeable shock night
And knew the who and the why.


It is the work of the single eye and “heart right” of the priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins which continues to resonate in our lives and hearts, 127 years after his death.


Canon Michael Burgess is the Rector of Oughtrington and Warburton, in the diocese of Chester. He is president of the Hopkins Society (www.hopkinssociety.co.uk).

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