Gerard Manley Hopkins


The Starlight Night

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
   O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
   The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
   Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
   Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare! 
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
   Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
   Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.


Gerard Manley Hopkins might use exclamation marks like a sugar-rushing teenager on social media, but you can excuse this trait when you consider the quality of the text it punctuates. He was a writer in awe of nature, deeply respectful of the people he describes, and with a deep Christian commitment. His religiosity is unfashionable today and I can’t think of any contemporary writer who attributes their skill or craft to God’s will, but Hopkins is a committed creationist and attributes all the wonders of nature to God’s hand. If you can recall the brilliant illumination of a starlit night and seen the fireflies darting through the trees then you can share his exhilaration as he describes the night sky in this poem.

Hopkins was from London and was the eldest child in a prosperous artistic family that moved to Hampstead from Essex. He read classics at Balliol College, Oxford, and established a friendship with Robert Bridges that was to last for the rest of his life. In due course it was Bridges who arranged the posthumous publication of Hopkins poetry in the early 20th century and retrospectively established his reputation as a significant 19th century poet (see Third Thursday 12).

Hopkins himself admitted that he had a rather unusual style of writing

No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness … Take breath and read it with the ears

as he threw words together in a jumble to construct his imagery, but by doing so creates the literary equivalent of impressionism, Jackson Pollock, or free-jazz. And he’s right about reading it with your ears (rather than your eyes) as his verse is for speech rather than just lying on the page. I reckon Hopkins would have been one of the first gig-poets if the opportunity had been there. I’ve always thought he should have been the first of The Liverpool Poets.

There were several poems jostling for inclusion as I prepared to write this piece just because of his bonkers alliteration, rhymes and assonance. And he was keen to escape the regular dum-de-dum of traditional rhythms and metre. He called his style that of “sprung rhythm” and occasionally indicated where a stress should be placed in the line. He was seeking to capture the rhythms of every-day speech

The first line of The Windhover, for example:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

takes you headlong into a stream of imagery describing a kestrel soaring above the horses ploddingly ploughing the fields below.

Or, there’s 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;

where he makes no reference to colour but you can sense the green of the grass and the blue of the eggs.

Yet there are less than 50 poems in his compete work, and about a dozen other fragments of abandoned or incomplete verses, and the main reason was the depth of his religious vocation. Although raised as an Anglican, at Oxford he associated with John Newman and others as part of The Oxford Movement and shortly after graduation in 1868 he converted to Roman Catholicism, and then on deciding that his vocation was to be a Jesuit priests a few weeks later he burned all the poems he had written to date.

He believed that his poetry could improve if it was published and subject to critical scrutiny, but thought that publication might lead to acclaim: it was important for him to sublimate his own ego in order to commit himself in furtherance of his work for the church, and this tension caused unhappiness and depression. However, in 1875 he was invited to compose an elegy for several nuns who had died in a recent shipwreck and this resulted in the composition of The Wreck of The Deutschland, the first of the series of poems that now represent his work; having been commissioned the poem wasn’t actually published at the time but it kick-started his creative instincts and he began to write poetry again.

His training and pastoral work had taken him out of the Hampstead – Oxford intellectual bubble and he worked in churches (and colleges as a lecturer in Greek and Latin) in both the big industrial cities as well as smaller more rural settings. At times he worked or studied in Chorley (Lancashire), St Asaph (North Wales), Sheffield, Mayfair, Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and finally Dublin.

He didn’t find the work easy, but Hopkins had a close relationship with the poor working people and an affinity with their plight. This engagement is revealed by both his poetic use of local dialect words, and the subjects of his verse – such as Felix Randall the farrier, Harry Ploughman, and the unemployed Tom’s Garland.

He also commented on the ways in which industrial society was impacting upon the environment in Binsey Poplars which were felled in Oxford in 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
   Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
   All felled, felled, are all felled;
     Of a fresh and following folded rank
                Not spared, not one
                That dandled a sandalled
         Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

… and a favourite of mine:

The Sea and The Skylark

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
     Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
     With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
     His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
     In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
     How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,

     Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
     To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.

In The Sea and The Skylark the “frail town” in question is Rhyl, north Wales, and Hopkins contrasts the natural sounds of the sea and the sky with the base despoilment of life in an industrial urban community. The only other poetic construct I know of that came from Rhyl was dear old Adrian Henri.

Hopkins died an artist’s death, of tuberculosis, in Dublin in 1889 at the age of 44. His poetry wasn’t widely known until his friend Robert Bridges, then Poet Laureate, started to publish them after the First World War in 1918. By that time the rest of the world had started to catch up with what Hopkins had achieved fifty years earlier and his work was acclaimed by modernist writers such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

As the critic Debra Allberry pointed out in 2012, the last five years of Hopkins life was one of multiple isolation: a Jesuit distanced from his Anglican family and his homeland, an Englishman working in Dublin during a time of political strife, and an unpublished poet striving to reconcile his artistic and religious callings. And yet he still found time to care for the pain of others

Spring and Fall

to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! 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 will 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.