For Gerard Manley Hopkins, the wilderness – especially in spring – was his dark, unforgiving city. A place not of pain and suffering but of rejuvenation and resurrection. Despite his reputation as a lacklustre preacher, an uninspiring teacher and an eccentric priest, Hopkins was a radically gifted poet of unparalleled vision.
The wilderness of nature was the God-created world in all of its purity and strangeness – creation unbridled. The perfect fodder for a poet who sought to stretch language to capture the ineffable and channel the Holy Spirit. To Hopkins, nature is something both ancient and unchanging; it is both material and metaphor for Christ, who Hopkins envisioned as a transcendent spirit whose incarnation revealed truth.
Born in 1844, Hopkins was raised in Hampstead in the High Church Anglican tradition. He excelled at Balliol College, Oxford – taking a first in Greats – and converted to Catholicism in 1866. He was received into the church by another convert, John Henry Newman. In 1868, when the ardent but nervous Hopkins entered the Society of Jesus as a priest, Newman congratulated him with a note: “Don’t call the Jesuit discipline hard, it will bring you to heaven.”
His discipline was a rejection of self: he burned his poems. In 1863, upon entry at Oxford, Hopkins wrote a letter detailing his soul: “I have particular periods of admiration for particular things in Nature; for a certain time I am astonished at the beauty of a tree… 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.”
Trees had bodies, and even before Hopkins’s ascetic turn as a Jesuit, he was drawn to the Catholic tendency to view the body as a beautiful, complex image of God. “Vermilion look of the hand held against a candle,” he wrote in 1866, “with the darker parts as the middles of the fingers and especially the knuckles covered with ash.”
A year later, while lying in the grass at Oxford, he put his hand up to block the sun and “saw more richness and beauty in the blue than I had known of before, not brilliance but glow and colour. It was not transparent and sapphire-like, but turquoise-like, swarming and blushing round the edge of the hand.”
Hopkins began to cultivate a theory that might give flesh to his sense of the natural world. Shortly after his graduation from Oxford in 1867, Hopkins compiled notes on Parmenides, the ancient Greek philosopher and poet who sought to understand the nature of reality. Hopkins summarises the thinker’s central argument to mean “that all things are upheld by instress and are meaningless without it”.
The term instress is used as a close corollary to another term in his notes, inscape, a concept often related to proportion. By proportion, Hopkins means that inscape is the unique and distinct elements of a thing. Instress is what holds everything together, and instress also enables us to see, understand and appreciate something.
His conception of inscape would soon evolve, splinter and unify again. It would be ambiguous and odd and perhaps only clear to Hopkins himself. Inscape is Hopkins’s personal song, his poetry without poems. Inscape was Hopkins’s attempt to quantify the sublimity of the wild: to capture, in verse, that intangible feeling of being stirred by nature, the moments when we are convinced the wild is part of a grand divine plan.
Before he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Manresa House in Roehampton, south-west London (which has a blue heritage plaque dedicated to Hopkins), he spent a month in Switzerland. His burnt poems were fresh in his mind, but the open air afforded him new inspiration. He found inscape everywhere: in trees, in plants and among the mountain pastures. He travelled to Grindelwald, where he saw brooks slanted and falling so that the glaciers were “cross-hatched with their crevasses”. He would later describe inscape as “design, pattern” – that which “I above all aim at in poetry”.
In 1871, during his intensive philosophy studies at Saint Mary’s Hall of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, Hopkins made a visit to Netley Abbey, a Cistercian monastery. He walked among the ruins, appreciating the ivy vines and ash trees as well as how even the dew held “the bright pieces of evening light”.
Inscape transcended flora and fauna, living and dead. The entire natural world, for Hopkins, was wilderness – and it was a world that filled him with “delightful fear”. His gentle fear was a part of his eccentric vision of the world, although any discussion of Hopkins’s strangeness and eccentricity is meant in the most positive sense of those terms.
On Holy Saturday in 1872, Hopkins described the sky as “warm, with thunder, odd tufts of thin-textured very plump round clouds something like the eggs in an opened ant-hill”—his linking of nature to nature both clarifies each and suggests a synchronicity of existence. Although these observations were documented in his dense, flowing notebook, he still abstained from writing poems.
Even a brief note during this winter period is telling. When Hopkins writes that he “caught an inscape as flowing and well marked almost as the frosting on glass and slabs; but I could not reproduce it afterwards with the pencil”, it feels like a gentle admission that the profound beauty of the world that he was able to view remained distant from him in the act of creation.
It took a tragedy – distant from him in location but not in spirit – to bring Hopkins back to poetry. On 7 December 1875, a German steamship bound for New York became caught in a blizzard and ran aground. Hopkins was particularly moved by the death of five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany who bore witness to their faith until the end. Hopkins finished his long poem based on the tragedy in January 1876 and then continued to write.
He was ordained a priest in September 1877. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”, he begins his poem “God’s Grandeur”, written that year. Constructed as a single sentence that ends with the divine, Hopkins leaves no doubt in his pronouncement. This God-gifted world “will flame out”, he warns.
Hopkins means our natural and organic world, a beautiful and vulnerable wilderness trampled by man: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; / And all is seared with trade…” Despite the toiling of the world, “nature is never spent.”
The beauty of the natural world comes from being unbound, as in “Spring”, a poem praising the season when “weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush”. Hopkins works wonders with syntax. His praise of nature is explicitly a praise of God, for God creates all. And if all creation is God made, then all iterations and deviations are beautiful. The spare, the strange, the fickle: Hopkins loved them all.
In 1878, Hopkins become curate at Mount Street Jesuit church in Mayfair, London, and in December he moved to St Aloysius’s Church, Oxford. He also served in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.
“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness,” Hopkins admitted in a letter to his friend Robert Bridges – the future poet laureate of England. They’d met in 1863 at Oxford and began writing to each other in 1865. Their correspondence continued for over 20 years. Bridges later collected and published Hopkins’s poems in 1918 (with a tepid introduction). The two close friends disagreed often about Catholicism and poetry.
To Hopkins, strangeness was his poetic destiny: “Every true poet… must be original and originality a condition of poetic genius.” Inscape formed his poetic sense because he believed that with enough seeing – with enough faith – the wilderness could transform him: a communion with nature. When Hopkins was describing the water at Hodder Roughs, he describes “the curls of froth where the waves overlap shaped and turned easily and idly”.
This sense of melancholy, or failure, is captured in his 1880 poem “Spring and Fall”. (“Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow’s springs are all the same.”) The narrator is world-weary and pained. Our truest sadness is the recognition that it is not the falling of leaves that pains us but our own falls, however public or private. And yet we live among those leaves; we inhabit an incarnational world with them, so our grief is collective.
His Dublin years, where he taught Latin and Greek at the university, led to a darker turn in his poetry. He was not a successful preacher and, devoid of a “working strength”, was to leave pastoral work. In an 1881 letter to his friend Richard Watson Dixon, Hopkins admitted: “I would gladly live all my life, if it were so to be, in as great or a greater seclusion from the world and be busied only with God.”
On 22 April 1889, a lethargic Hopkins wrote a poem the day after Easter Sunday after sketching a drawing. He held on to it for a week and then mailed it to Bridges. “I am ill to-day, but no matter for that as my spirits are good,” Hopkins began his 29 April 29 1889 letter. “I believe I enclose a new sonnet… This one is addressed to you.” It was to be his last.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and The Paris Review. Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness is published in July by 1517 Media
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