Arts & Books

The poet who saw the sacramental in everyday life

Lovers of poetry have much to thank Robert Bridges for; if it wasn’t for his loyal service we would never know of the extraordinary poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, working as a Jesuit priest in Dublin, had died of typhoid fever on 8 June 1889, his poems virtually unknown. Bridges published the first collection of his friend’s work in 1918 – a century able to understand and love this strange poetry in a way that the Victorian world in which Hopkins lived could not have done.

I am writing this in response to Bright Wings Dappled Things, a selection of Hopkins’ best loved poems, produced by Messenger Publications, Dublin, with an introduction and commentary by Sister Jo O’Donovan RSM. It is a handsome hardback volume, including photographs by Fr Francis Browne SJ (1880-1960) which, not unlike Hopkins’ poems, had lain in the Jesuit Provincial Archives for 26 years after his death.

If this makes the volume sound like a glossy, coffee-table production, it isn’t. Fr Browne’s stark, dramatic, black and white scenes of nature, Irish landscapes and people mesh beautifully with the poet’s themes, his absorption in natural phenomena, such as revealed in Pied Beauty or Inversnaid, and his sympathy with ordinary working people, as shown in Felix Randal.

Those who love Hopkins will have their favourites; mine are what have been described as the “dark sonnets”, those written in Dublin, where he was sent in 1884, already delicate in health and inclined to introspection and loneliness. They are some of the finest poems ever written on that sense of spiritual isolation experienced by all who are prepared to confront the tragic sense of life even as they wrestle with hope in the Resurrection. As Hopkins puts it in That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, “This Jack, joke, poor potsherd/patch, matchwood, immortal diamond/ is immortal diamond.”

The phrase “immortal diamond” was engraved on Hopkins’ memorial stone in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey in 1975, rightly so, of the man who could also write so poignantly, “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed…”

Sister Jo O’Donovan who has included a brief summary of the poet’s life alongside a commentary on the poetry, suggests that this is for those who are not familiar with Hopkins’ work. Those who are might well have different interpretations and insights than the ones she gives. Yet she can be a helpful guide for e.g. The Wreck of the Deutschland, which even Bridges found hard to fathom.

A convert when aged 22 and at Oxford (he was received on 21 October by John Henry Newman), Hopkins wrote to his concerned parents five days earlier to explain that his study of Catholicism had led him to the “old church” as a “system that only wants to be known in order to be loved – its consolations, its marvellous ideal of holiness, the faith and devotion of its children…its array of saints and martyrs, its consistency and unity, its glowing prayers, the daring majesty of its claims…”

Conversion did not lead Hopkins to write conventional religious verse; it simply transformed what he wrote into an intensely sacramental vision of life, where, as he put it in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “Christ plays in ten thousand places/lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his…”