CATHARINE RANDALL chooses just the right theme for this excellent introduction to Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is the sheer intensity with which he experienced life.
Hopkins had a happy childhood in Hampstead, and from the start he was observing and drawing his natural surroundings with great precision. For much of his life, he not only kept a written notebook, but one with sketches in it, and at one time he thought of being an artist. At Oxford, the importance to him of an exact observation of nature was strengthened by his reading of Ruskin and Pater.
His intensity at this stage took further forms, first in a passionate friendship with a fellow student, Digby Mackworth Dolben, who died young, and then in his religion. He observed an austere form of Anglo-Catholicism and, after the usual struggle and opposition from his parents, followed his hero, Newman, to become a Roman Catholic, though Hopkins became a Jesuit instead of joining Newman’s oratory.
The biggest influence in his formation was the discovery of the 14th-century Scottish philosopher Duns Scotus. Scotus, instead of focusing on great abstract concepts, emphasised the unique individuality of each single thing. Central to him, and then Hopkins, was its haecitas or “thisness”; and Randall brings this out well. So in “As kingfishers catch fire”, each thing
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
It is this striving to enter into the uniqueness of everything, its inscape, with words rather than in lines, which characterises his poetry. For him, everything was “counter, original, spare, strange”, and he pushed words to their limit to convey something of this. It is a combination of strength of feeling with a keenly observant eye and an acute alertness to sound.
Hopkins ministered to the poor Irish in Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow, but found the squalor very difficult to take. Nevertheless, he had a very happy time at St Beuno’s, in north Wales, where he wrote some of his most loved poems. Here, he also learnt Welsh, and was influenced by Cynghanedd, the Welsh poetic form with its stress on alliteration and internal rhyming.
Although Hopkins had obtained a first in Greats at Oxford, he failed his seminary theology exams. This meant that he was barred from playing any great part in the order and was sent off to Dublin to teach classics.
His health, always poor, deteriorated as a result of Dublin’s unsanitary conditions. And the work was sheer drudgery; for it meant staying up late at night marking mundane answers to exam questions. From this period came his “terrible sonnets”, expressing the most terrible desolation. The intensity with which he had felt the beauty of the world, now knew its utter blackness.
His heart had indeed been “lost in wonder”, the words of Thomas Aquinas chosen for the title of the book, but now it was a heart lost in horror. Yet, he believed, he had had a happy life.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 images (SPCK, 2020) (Books, 9 April 2020).
A Heart Lost in Wonder: The life and faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins
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