Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet/Priest

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Entitled The Windhover, you might, if you haven’t read Gerard Manley Hopkins before, not have seen some of the words he made up for this poem, like ‘sillion.’ The meter too is unique to Hopkins; he created his own that he called sprung rhythm. The uniqueness and innovation that characterizes his passionate verse set him aside from his contemporaries of Victorian England–it has even been said he paved the way for free verse.

He lived his life as anything but free. Hopkins (1844- 1889) was a sensitive, bright youth who did well at Oxford. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1866 and became a Jesuit priest in 1868, when he was 24 years old. This decision set the tone of his unhappy life, which was a struggle to repress his poetic and (homo?)sexual urges. Taking on the life of a Jesuit, Hopkins traveled to many part of England and finally Dublin, Ireland to teach, where he found himself friendless, unrespected, and ill at ease. These years led to his so-called terrible sonnets, which express great personal anguish.

His artistic dilemma only exacerbated his unhappiness (today we might call it manic depression), for he was a devout man. Hopkins felt that to publish his poetry would be too egoistic for a Jesuit priest, and not to publish would limit his poetic ability. He lived a divided life. He burned much of his early poetry, and stopped writing poetry later in life. Aside from a few odd periodicals, he was never published. Instead of poetry, he began to fill journals of incredible prosody and imagery, as well as wrote for more practical, religious purposes. Yet to the end of his life he remained both a devout Christian and a devoted writer. One might say of his poetry, as he writes in God’s Grandeur:

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.

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