Gerard Manley Hopkins: Faith & Loathing in the Catholic Church

It is undeniable that religion played a crucial role in the poetic imagination of Gerard Manley Hopkins even though his writings occasionally contradicted and challenged certain aspects of accepted Catholic doctrine.

Hopkins was born in a deeply religious household belonging to the High Church branch of Anglicanism, which differed from the more evangelical and populist Low Church Anglicanism in its Catholic-like emphasis of ritual, theology, and hierarchical structure. Hopkins also grew up in an artistic family, with his great-uncle, Richard James Lane, being an acclaimed portraitist and of his two of brothers later becoming successful artists. Before realizing his love for poetry, a young Hopkins had ambitions of being a poet. Even as a child, he was highly eccentric, experimenting with asceticism by not trying not to drink water for a week (which was cut short by his tongue turning black and by him passing out) and on another occasion, not eating salt for a week.

When Hopkins first arrived at Oxford to study Classics, he was a generally outgoing and social young man, writing poetry at a prolific pace. However, as time progressed, Hopkins became more shy and withdrawn. During that time, he deeply affected by the writings of the poet Christina Rossetti, medieval mysticism,  the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the religious arguments concerning the place of ritual and tradition in the High Church versus the more individualist focus of the Low Church. At the age of 21, Hopkins composed his most austere poem to date, “The Habit of Perfection” in which he denounced sensory pleasures and praised poverty. In 1866, Hopkins decided to convert to Catholicism and to dedicate his life to God, alienating himself from many members of his family and friends.

In May, 1868, Hopkins, shortly before entering seminary to become a Jesuit, he made a bonfire of his poems and stopped writing poetry for nearly seven years, believing that it is not possible to dedicate oneself to worldly beauty in addition to God. Eventually, after reading the works of Duns Scotus, Hopkins began to reconcile his love of the natural world with the higher spiritual duties of the priest. In 1875, Hopkins finally resumed writing poetry but only at the insistence of his church superior, who wanted him to write a poem in commemoration of the shipwreck of the SS Deutschland, which had aboard it five nuns fleeing German persecution against Catholics. The resulting “The Wrecking of the S.S. Deutschland” marked a clear departure from Hopkins’ early works by being the first to feature the unusual meter and sprung rhythm common in his later poems. It was not particularly well received, although the Jesuits did not reject it they also did not publish it in their official publications.

In addition to his artistic dilemma, Hopkins might have also conflicted with his chosen faith due to his sexuality. There is strong evidence from his diary and correspondence and poetry that he was in love with fellow poet and cousin of Robert Bridges, Digby Mackworth Dolben. They two regularly wrote letters to each other, after Hopkins’ church superiors forbade them meeting in person, until Dolben drowned in 1867, which had a deep emotional impact on Hopkins.  Two of Hopkins’ poems, “Where art thou friend” and “The Beginning of the End” are explicitly about Dolben, with the second poem containing the line “The sceptic disappointment and the loss/A boy feels when the poet he pores upon/Grows less and less sweet to him, and knows no cause.”

By failing his final theology exam, Hopkins was denied the chance to progress any further in the Jesuit order from his rank of priest He eventually obtained a position of Classics professor at University College Dublin, although by all accounts the shy Hopkins was not a very commanding teacher. Hopkins then entered into an ever-worsening spiral of depression, aggravated by feelings of home-sickness. Hopkins also felt a sense of artistic and religious dilemma, believing on one hand that publishing his poem would expose him to vanity while also feeling that it is crucial for a poet to have an audience. His poems of this era like “I Wake and Feel the Fell of the Dark”, often called the “terrible sonnets”, reflected this growing sense of failure and doom. In 1889, at the age of 44, after suffering long bouts of both physical and mental illness, including chronic diarrhea and severe depression, Hopkins died from typhoid fever. Despite his persistent battles with regret and anguish, his final words were: “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”

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