Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Essex in 1844 and died in 1889. He was a priest and a teacher, and he also wrote poetry. However, he was little known as a writer during his lifetime. But since the publication of his work in 1918, he has been recognized as one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century.
I should say from the outset that Hopkins is not always easy to understand. In that respect, he is comparable to his contemporary, Emily Dickinson, the great American poet. He is also like her in that repeated efforts to understand his words can be very rewarding. Readers who have an appreciative feel for Shakespearian expressions are off to a good start when it comes to understanding Hopkins. A love for the wonders of nature will also help. Hopkins loved the trees and the birds and the clouds and all the other features of the natural realm:
‘I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour…’
And from the same poem (“Hurrahing in Harvest”):
‘These things, these things were here and but the beholder
A religious consciousness is expressed in the first two lines, a scientific consciousness in the latter two. After all, the universe had been in existence long before the human mind appeared to see it, to contemplate it.
Many of these poems are brief, but others are quite long. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” concerns the plight of five nuns who had been exiled from Germany and were subsequently drowned in a shipwreck. This poem is about twelve pages long and has an epic feel about it. Another shipwreck poem is titled “The Loss of the Eurydice”, which is also longer than most of Hopkins’s poems.
A dedicated priest, it is not surprising that his poems are loaded with religious references, but he steers clear of worn-out terminology; everything is expressed in fresh terms: ‘I am soft sift / In an hourglass,’ is another way of stating that we are dust, and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). And when he invokes the protection of a guardian angel in behalf of a boy who has just received first communion, he says:
‘Frowning and forefending angel-warder
Squander the hell-rook ranks sally to molest him…’
I love the image of a frowning guardian angel; frowning, not at its innocent charge, but at the forces of evil and corruption that menace him.
Perhaps my favorite poem concerns the enigmatic sadness of a young girl:
‘Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?’
For me, this poem evokes those mysterious sorrows of childhood which often elude the understanding of even the most sympathetic parents. Hopkins, however, seemed to grasp what it was that afflicted the heart of this child whenever she saw the fallen leaves of Goldengrove:
‘It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.’
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