Hopkins was born July 28, 1844, to Manley and Catherine (Smith) Hopkins,
the first of their nine children. His parents were High Church Anglicans
(variously described as "earnest" and "moderate"), and his father, a marine
insurance adjuster, had just published a volume of poetry the year before.
At grammar school in Highgate (1854-63), he won the poetry prize for "The
Escorial" and a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford (1863-67), where his
tutors included Walter Pater and Benjamin Jowett. At one time he wanted to
be a painter-poet like D. G. Rossetti (two of his brothers became
professional painters), and he was strongly influenced by the aesthetic
theories of Pater and John Ruskin and by the poetry of the devout Anglicans
George Herbert and Christina Rossetti.
Even more insistent, however, was his
search for a religion which could speak with true authority; at Oxford, he
came under the influence of John Henry Newman. (See Tractarianism.) Newman,
who had converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845, provided
him with the example he was seeking, and in 1866 he was received by Newman
into the Catholic Church. In 1867 he won First-Class degrees in Classics and
"Greats" (a rare "double-first") and was considered by Jowett to be the star
The following year he entered the Society of Jesus; and feeling that the
practice of poetry was too individualistic and self-indulgent for a Jesuit
priest committed to the deliberate sacrifice of personal ambition, he burned
his early poems. Not until he studied the writings of Duns Scotus in 1872
did he decide that his poetry might not necessarily conflict with Jesuit
principles. Scotus (1265-1308), a medieval Catholic thinker, argued
(contrary to the teachings of the official Jesuit theologian, St. Thomas
Aquinas) that individual and particular objects in this world were the only
things that man could know directly, and only through the haecceitas ("thisness")
of each object. With his independently-arrived at idea of "inscape" thus
bolstered, Hopkins could begin writing again.
In 1874, studying theology in North Wales, he learned Welsh, and was later
to adapt the rhythms of Welsh poetry to his own verse, inventing what he
called " sprung rhythm." The event that startled him into speech was the
sinking of the Deutschland, whose passengers included five Catholic nuns
exiled from Germany. The Wreck of the Deutschland is a tour de force
containing most of the devices he had been working out in theory for the
past few years, but was too radical in style to be printed.
From his ordination as a priest in 1877 until 1879, Hopkins served not too
successfully as preacher or assistant to the parish priest in Sheffield,
Oxford, and London; during the next three years he found stimulating but
exhausting work as parish priest in the slums of three manufacturing cities,
Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Late in 1881 he began ten months of
spiritual study in London, and then for three years taught Latin and Greek
at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. His appointment in 1884 as Professor of
Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, which might be expected to be
his happiest work, instead found him in prolonged depression. This resulted
partly from the examination papers he had to read as Fellow in Classics for
the Royal University of Ireland. The exams occured five or six times a year,
might produce 500 papers, each one several pages of mostly uninspired
student translations (in 1885 there were 631 failures to 1213 passes). More
important, however, was his sense that his prayers no longer reached God;
and this doubt produced the "terrible" sonnets. He refused to give way to
his depression, however, and his last words as he lay dying of typhoid fever
on June 8, 1889, were, "I am happy, so happy."
Apart from a few uncharacteristic poems scattered in periodicals, Hopkins
was not published during his own lifetime. His good friend Robert Bridges
(1844-1930), whom he met at Oxford and who became Poet Laureate in 1913,
served as his literary caretaker: Hopkins sent him copies of his poems, and
Bridges arranged for their publication in 1918.
Even after he started writing again in 1875, Hopkins put his
responsibilities as a priest before his poetry, and consequently his output
is rather slim and somewhat limited in range, especially in comparison to
such major figures as Tennyson or Browning. Over the past few decades
critics have awarded the third place in the Victorian Triumvirate first to
Arnold and then to Hopkins; now his stock seems to be falling and D.G.
Rossetti's rising. Putting Hopkins up with the other two great Victorian
poets implies that his concern with the " inscape" of natural objects is
centrally important to the period; and since that way of looking at the
world is essentially Romantic, it further implies that the similarities
between Romantic and Victorian poetry are much more significant than their
differences. Whatever we decide Hopkins' poetic rank to be, his poetry will
always be among the greatest poems of faith and doubt in the English
Look at the Stars
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quick gold lies!
Wind-beat white beam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
I HAVE desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
Courtesy: Basharat Nadeem