The poet's life was marked by darkness - but also by the beauty at the heart of the world
In the year 1866, Gerard Manley Hopkins feels like an exile. He’s publicly announced his intention to convert to the Catholic faith from his native Anglicanism and the news has dropped like a lead weight in the environs of Oxford. He’ll have to leave, of course. Catholics aren’t allowed to make a success at Oxford, so the knife is made ready to cut him adrift. Meanwhile, he languishes, a stranger in his own home.
Nine years ago, I too felt like an exile. Sitting in the chapel of St Vincent DePaul in St Louis, Missouri, during Mass, I thought about Hopkins. I had been sitting in that pew every day for more than four months, not once rising to receive Holy Communion because I was spiritually homeless. I had been an Anglican priest, but having declared my intention to join the Catholic Church, I naturally left my vocation, parishioners and friends behind to occupy this foreign house of worship. I longed to make it my home, but until the day I was received into full Communion I was to feel an exile.
I wanted to become Catholic because the Church had revealed herself in all her beauty, a chaste Mother whom I already loved. Having never fully known her, I nevertheless missed her the way I would a rib had it been pulled from my side. Even if the wound of love was an affliction I gladly bore, it rattled me to the core.
When Hopkins finally converted and was removed from Oxford, he continued to drift. If entering the Church is like immersing oneself in a great ocean of love, all love comes with obligations and sacrifices. The vastness of the sea is overwhelming as waves undulate gently to a vanishing horizon with no proper end.
Hopkins ended up studying with the Society of Jesus, with whom he never made a success. His homilies were long, excruciatingly detailed and occasionally incited groaning laughter. He was transferred to several parishes in succession, never leaving the legacy of a beloved pastor in any of them. Eventually, he was transferred to teaching duties at the Catholic University of Ireland, where he died of typhoid fever aged 44.
All his life, Hopkins wavered between ecstatic glimpses of the divine and deep depression. He heard the voice of God echo from the depths of a sacred well, saw the tracing of a bird’s flight as it hovered like the Holy Spirit brooding over him, but he would also “wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”, and exclaim: “I am gall, I am heartburn.” These poems, these beautiful, heart-rending poems that unmask us and drill down to the sacerdotal presence of Christ in each “dappled” thing, these selfsame diamonds of immortal grace, they were never read by anyone except his friend Robert Bridges. In fits of despair, Hopkins would destroy work and promise himself, as a form of penance, that he would never write again.
I too struggle with depression and feelings of inadequacy. As a priest myself, I worry that my homilies are indulgent and sentimental, my spiritual advice is dull, and I am altogether not the man for the job. We may be uncomfortable admitting as much, but I suppose the feelings aren’t unusual, and here Hopkins offers his greatest consolation. It is a thought I return to again and again. On his deathbed, Hopkins finally considered his life a great success, exclaiming: “I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life.” All his life he was an exile, catching distant glimpses of domestic bliss through the veil, and he finally made it home.
The biography of Hopkins is not about success such as we might measure it. It isn’t about popularity, financial accumulation or becoming an esteemed poet. His existence was fit to a single task: apprehending the beauty at the heart of the world and clinging on for dear life. Beauty both consoles and stings. It is an arrow to the heart, causing discontent and rapture. Hopkins observed this beauty as it burst forth all around him, and it was a truth he could not deny. God exists and he is discovered by looking into the true meaning of each created thing. This, to me, is a particularly winsome argument for the Church, for love, for happiness, for poetry and, yes, for truth.
Why would a person give up everything to convert to the Church? Because he is deeply, madly in love with her. This is the paradox that tears the heart in two: beauty calls us forth into the dark, starry night and it is simultaneously the hearth-fire. So, when the arrow is buried deep, this is our happiness and our joy. We are a people in love, and desire for our beloved will lead us home.
Fr Michael Rennier is associate editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly of ideas, art and faith (dappledthings.org)