A message from Father Nick 87

A critic who had studied him said of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “After an intensive reading of Hopkins, most other English poetry seems outwardly facile and in varying degrees inadequate.” Another writer insists that only one date in Hopkins’ life has any great significance: the day in September, 1868, when he entered the Jesuit novitiate. On that day, the whole direction of his life was changed. Those two statements are surely related.

Baptised an Anglican, he became a Catholic in his last year at Oxford and was received into the Church by St John Henry Newman (a friend of Hopkins describes having previously walked with him to Belmont Abbey, where a conversation with Father Raynal, later abbot, brought about the end of their Anglicanism). He was brilliant and always painfully sensitive, and he left an indelible impression on those who knew him as a student. One speaks of his “superfineness of mind and character”, a quality expressed in his entire bearing.

Hopkins’ undergraduate notebooks show his keen sense of natural beauty and his awareness of shape, texture and colour. He was also a skilled draughtsman, and this too influenced his poetry. And as with St Francis of Assisi, his faith transformed his experience of the world.

Suppose,” he said, “God showed us in a vision the whole world enclosed first in a drop of water, allowing everything to be seen in its native colours; then the same in a drop of Christ’s blood, by which everything whatever was turned to scarlet, keeping nevertheless mounted in the scarlet its own colour too…” It seems cruelly ironic that he later suffered with his eyes – “the feeling is like soap or lemons”).

He loved the uniqueness of things and spoke of their instress (“the intensity of feelings and associations which something beautiful brought to him”), and inscape (“the essential individuality… or ‘selfhood’ of a thing working itself out and expressing itself in design and pattern”). Perhaps most famously, he pioneered verse in sprung rhythm, which is based on the number of stressed syllables in a line and permits an indeterminate number of unstressed syllables. A true innovation, this gave his poetry extraordinary power.

But most of all, he loved Christ, serving him as a Jesuit in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, North Wales and Dublin – where he remained, somewhat to his own discomfort, a “very English Englishman”. His writing was an act of prayer, and among his sonnets, one read out recently by Prince Charles has acquired a new significance in this age of climate change.

                    God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
   And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.