Monday, June 04, 2007

Hopkins' Catholic Genius

This is the term paper I wrote for my poetics class about Hopkins' masterwork, The Wreck of the Deutschland. It isn't the usual style of what I write for this blog, but I thought it would do for an introduction to the poem, which I'm planning to do a series of posts on soon. The assignment was to choose one poet, tell about his life, and explain his work in light of a single masterpiece. The full text of the poem, complete with line numbers, may be found here.

* * *

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet unlike any other. His peculiarities fall into several different categories. There is the fact of his priesthood within the Catholic Church—rare if not unique among English poets. Then there is his highly unusual system of prosody, involving sprung rhythm and frequent alliteration. In his stylistic innovation, he became a forerunner of modern experimentalism. Finally, there is his rich, meditative spirituality. All of these facets are exemplified within his first major poem and his life’s masterpiece, The Wreck of the Deutschland.

Hopkins was born in 1844 to middle-class Anglican parents. He was a sensitive, reserved young man, eager for friendship but rarely finding companions with whom he shared the level of sympathy he wished. When he was eight, his parents sent him to a good boarding school, where he quickly rose to academic excellence. His high achievement eventually earned him a scholarship to Oxford.

While at Oxford, he met a number of groups with different religious beliefs within the Church of England. Finding himself drawn to a more conservative, ritualist perspective, he began associating with the most High Church Anglicans at Oxford. Slowly his beliefs became more and more High Church, until he finally found they could have no true home outside the Catholic Church. Cardinal John Henry Newman, who had converted a generation before, counseled him in his decision. He entered the Church on October 12, 1866.

Although fully in accord with his spiritual desires, Hopkins’ conversion was still not easy. His parents were strongly opposed, and considered him to be abandoning them. Their disapproval pained him: “I have been up at Oxford just long enough to have heard fr. my father and mother in return for my letter announcing my conversion. Their answers are terrible: I cannot read them twice.” [1] For a sensitive young man, this was very difficult, but it did not change his mind about converting.

Very shortly after his conversion he reached the determination to become a Catholic priest. It seems to have been his intention previously to take orders within the Anglican church, and with his conversion he soon began considering different religious orders. After considering the Benedictines and Cardinal Newman’s order, the Oratorians, he decided on the Jesuits. Newman approved, writing, “I think it is the very thing for you. . . . Don’t call ‘the Jesuit discipline hard’, it will bring you to heaven. The Benedictines would not have suited you.” [2]

Hopkins wrote a fair amount of poetry before his conversion, although none of it earned much acclaim. His poems sound like any average Victorian poetry: they are technically well done but unoriginal. Before his entrance into the seminary, however, he destroyed his existing poems (although copies of most remained, either in print or in the possession of friends) and wrote no more for seven years:

What I had written I burnt before I became a Jesuit and resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless it were by the wish of my superiors; so for seven years I wrote nothing but two or three little presentation pieces which occasion called for. But when in the winter of ’75 the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames and five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany by the Falck Laws, aboard of her were drowned I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject. On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realized on paper. [3]

This new poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, will be examined in detail later. It is enough now to say that the poem was the first ever written in Hopkins’ characteristic style, using sprung rhythm, meditative rather than linear order, and a Catholic sensibility. After this, Hopkins began to write poetry again regularly, although he had little time to dedicate to it.

After his ordination, Hopkins worked as a parish priest, and sometimes as a teacher, for the rest of his life. Still, he produced many poems describing nature, spiritual realities, and often his own state of mind. Among the last category are his “terrible” or “dark sonnets,” poems expressing desolation and spiritual anguish. Some critics believe these to be an expression of Hopkins’ loss of faith. However, as Austin Warren writes,

The “terrible sonnets” are not revelations of atheist face beneath Catholic mask. They are the cries of a pious soul undergoing vastation, spiritual dryness, feeling abandoned by God and unprofitable to self or Him. The images evoked are those of Jacob wrestling with the angel, the veiled God; of Job, believing in God but puzzled by the gap between piety and prosperity; of the prophet Jeremiah, from whom Hopkins quotes the epigraph over No. 50: “Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: Yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?” [4]

The Catholic Church has always possessed an understanding of the role of spiritual darkness. It is not despair, but an acceptance of the reality of spiritual suffering even in a holy life. In Hopkins’ dark sonnets, he always refuses to give in to despair, despite his apparent temptation.

Hopkins suffered from many physical troubles and sickness, and he died of typhoid at the age of 45 in 1889. His obituary in the Jesuit paper reads, “On the eighth day of June, the vigil of Pentecost, weakened by a fever, he rested. May he rest in peace. He had a most subtle mind, which too quickly wore out the fragile strength of his body.” [5] His final words, to belie the depression of his later years, were simply, “I am so happy, I am so happy, I am so happy.” [6] His life contained many spiritual sufferings, and yet he had the joy that his love of life and his Catholic faith gave him.

Hopkins died with none of his later poems published. His poetry was too unusual for his time, apparently, and for this reason his friend Robert Bridges, entrusted with his poems, did not print them until 1918, almost 30 years after Hopkins’ death. Even then they were little appreciated:
The book itself sold slowly. There were 750 copies printed in the first edition in 1918. Of these, 50 copies were given away; 180 sold the first year; 240 the second, then about 30 copies a year were sold until 1927, when the demand began to pick up slightly. The initial 750 copies were finally exhausted in 1928, ten years after they came off the press. [7]

Only two years later, a second edition was printed. Suddenly the critical opinion that had formerly been completely against Hopkins turned and began to praise him: “Lines quoted in 1919 as errors in taste and style are printed once more in 1931 as examples of excellent verse.” [8] The modern period of poetry had begun, and now Hopkins’ strangeness ceased to be a disadvantage. Soon his poetry had become an inspiration to the experimenters of the modern age, as well as being appreciated as good verse in its own right.

Hopkins’ first great poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, however, still presents a puzzle to many readers. Despite its apparent difficulty, it holds in kernel form all the genius for which Hopkins is acclaimed. First, it introduces Hopkins’ new rhythmic style, sprung rhythm, with all the alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme this rhythm includes. Second, and perhaps most difficult for a new reader, it uses Hopkins’ non-linear, more meditative system of thought. Third, it presents a spiritual meditation on the themes which infuse all of Hopkins’ later poems.

Sprung rhythm is difficult to write, especially according to Hopkins’ complex plans for composing the best musical effects, but the concept is actually quite simple. Instead of counting metrical feet, the poet uses a fixed number of stresses per line along with any number of unstressed syllables. This means that any kind of foot may follow any other, and even two bare stresses may follow one another without any intervening weak syllables. Sprung rhythm leads to a less regular meter, but it often results in much more dramatic rhythms than traditional scansion.

Hopkins defended sprung rhythm on the basis that it was more forceful:
Why do I employ sprung rhythm at all? Because it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms, combining, as it seems to me, opposite and, one wd. have thought, incompatible excellences, markedness of rhythm—that is rhythm’s self—and naturalness of expression—for why, if it is forcible in prose to say “lashed : rod”, am I obliged to weaken this in verse, which ought to be stronger, not weaker, into “láshed birch-ród” or something? [9]

Hopkins adds that his verse is “less to be read than heard,” and this is the reason for insisting on a less regular and more dramatic style. When used with Hopkins’ painstaking care, it leaves room for exciting sound effects impossible in accentual-syllabic verse.

The Wreck of the Deutschland is Hopkins’ first serious effort at sprung verse, yet he already uses it skillfully. The first stanza gives a good example:

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee. [10]

Each line of Hopkins’ fixed stanzaic form has a set number of stressed syllables: 2, 3 or 4, 4, 3, 5, 5, 4, 6. This can count as the number of feet, but the types of feet are mixed. The first stressed syllable, “Thou,” is used alone, followed by the word “mastering,” one stress followed by two unstressed syllables, and then “me,” another solitary stress. Two stressed syllables can be used next to one another without weakening either, as in “World’s strand.” The effect is to make the reader slow down and emphasize both syllables equally.

Along with his use of sprung rhythm follow a number of natural sound effects, including alliteration and internal rhyme. Hopkins’ alliteration can be difficult to read, for example the line “Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver” (45). However, the very denseness of the repetition of the alliterating sounds makes for dramatic effects. The same can be said for Hopkins’ frequent use of internal rhyme. These rhymes are not spaced half a line apart, as is common in English verse, but packed close together: “Blue-beating and hoary-glow height, or night, still higher” puts the two rhyming words only one unstressed syllable apart. (205)

After this consideration of Hopkins’ stylistic singularities, the next step is to interpret The Wreck of the Deutschland as a whole. As has been said earlier, the poem was written at the hint of Hopkins’ rector as a memorial for five Franciscan nuns who died in a shipwreck. The leader of the nuns, an especially tall woman, was reported by eyewitnesses to have cried repeatedly, “O Christ, Christ, come quickly!” [11] Hopkins was deeply affected by the story, and broke his seven years of poetic silence to write an elegy for the nuns.

The poem’s structure is not at all linear. This troubles many readers who expect a simple story or a straightforward thought. Instead, the poem progresses like a meditation: first, a reflection on the glory and power of God, then to the story of the shipwreck, followed by a meditation on the meaning of the nun’s cry to Christ, and ending with more praise of God and a prayer for the conversion of England. [12] The overriding theme of the meditation is the question of suffering: given the glory of God, how is the Christian to understand suffering? There is no one, simple answer, but throughout the poem Hopkins gives many explanations, from why suffering exists to the ways the tall nun uses her own suffering to bring greater glory to God.

The first section of the poem (the first ten stanzas) has no mention of the shipwreck; instead, it focuses on the praise of God. Already, however, there are hints of the theme of suffering:

Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt
Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver. (41-5)

The storm which later in the poem destroys the Deutschland and kills the nuns, Hopkins claims, is not of God’s specific sending. This is an example of the allowance of suffering: God allows suffering, but He does not will evil of itself. Hopkins also points out the trial to faith that suffering can be: “Here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss” (48).

Following this stanza is one on Christ’s passion. The mystery of suffering begins here, the poem explains, without making the connection completely clear. Then it moves on to the mystery of death and the particular judgment: men must die and go to their reward, whether good or bad, whether they are ready or not: “Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go” (64). Immediately after this warning, the poem returns to praising God, His chastisement and His comfort:

Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then. (70-2)

This is followed by a stanza about conversion: some, like Paul, are converted in an instant, and some slowly. The speaker prays God to convert all men and “be adored” (80).

The second section encompasses the remainder of the poem. After one stanza about the inevitability of death, the story of the shipwreck begins. The basic facts are described, but throughout the narrative are interspersed short sections of commentary on the tragedy. For example, after the mention that the passengers aboard the ship could not guess their future fate, Hopkins asks, “Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing / Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?” (95-6)

Several stanzas follow, painting a bleak word-picture of the shipwreck. Hope is dying for those on board, and lives are “washing away” (119). But in the middle of the crisis, the tall nun begins her cry:

Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told. (133-6)

The nun is not simply crying out for her own sake: through the words she utters to Christ, she becomes a prophetess. The theme of the witness she makes to her fellow-sufferers is repeated later in the poem.

For some time, the actual words the nun speaks are not revealed. The next stanza seems to be the question the nun addresses to her own heart, wondering why it must “make words break from me here all alone” (139). The cry she makes does not spring from her intellect, but directly from her heart, so that even she is uncertain of why she speaks. Amid her own tears, she asks her heart, “What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?” (144) Her cry seems joyful or at least hopeful, but her position is still desolate.

Again there is a mention of the effect of her words on the others: one of the nun’s companions speaks, reminding her of “a master, her master and mine!” (146) The tall nun “rears herself to divine / Ears,” directing her words to Christ, but all the men aboard the ship also hear her call. (150-1)

Following this dramatic moment is what seems a digression, but in the non-linear structure of the poem it is simply a further meditation, reflecting on the nuns’ past and the symbolism it has. The nuns are from Germany, and Deutschland (Germany) is the name of their ship. Germany is also the home of Protestantism. Hopkins points out that St. Gertrude and Martin Luther belong to the same town, and Cain and Abel have the same mother. Is it then surprising that the Protestant revolt and the missionary spirit of the Franciscan nuns come from the same place?

The nuns were exiled from Germany and could find no home in England; to the world their fate was an accursed one. To Christ, though, they are martyrs:

Thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them. (165-8)

To the world, the death of the good seems an evil, but to Christ, this moment of the death of his faithful spouses is a bridal, the moment at which they will be brought to their reward.

Next, Hopkins explores the symbolism of the number of nuns. Five is the number of Christ’s wounds, the “cipher of suffering Christ” (170). The suffering given to the nuns cannot be unfair, since Christ has allowed the same to be done to Him. Nothing is higher than Christ’s sacrifice, so, it is implied, there is nothing shameful that the nuns are allowed to join in the same sacrifice. St. Francis is also mentioned, for he also was allowed to share in the sufferings of Christ through the stigmata. He is enjoined to be glad that his daughters are allowed this special grace of death for Christ.

The point of view of the poem shifts now to Hopkins himself. He was indoors and resting while the nuns were “the prey of the gales” (188). Finally the substance of the tall nun’s cry is revealed: “O Christ, Christ, come quickly” (191). Her cry reaches everywhere: the waves, the falling snow, and the crowd.
Now the meaning of her cry is examined:

The majesty! what did she mean?
Breathe, arch and original Breath.
Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?
Breathe, body of lovely Death.
They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
Woke thee with a We are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
Or is it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen? (193-200)

Was she just glad to be suffering like Christ, unlike the apostles who could not trust Christ when the storm arose and He was asleep? Or did she want the suffering to be over and her crown won, as soon as possible? The next stanza continues questioning: what might be her heart’s desire—the passing of the storm, revealing the clear sky above? No, the poem answers. She is not asking for an end to her suffering, nor simply meditating on the Passion as she might do in a quiet moment of prayer. It is something else, not yet revealed.

Then there appears a vision in the speaker’s imagination, Christ coming as she begged of Him, ready to “cure the extremity where he had cast her,” relieve the suffering He had allowed her to experience (222). Now the speaker praises the nun for being able to interpret the sufferings she is undergoing and realize their meaning, acting in the role of Simon Peter, who could declare Christ as the Son of God. The nun knows that God has sent her sufferings and will cure them: she has a certain faith in Him. The speaker imagines the feast in heaven when the nun arrives. She has acted in the role of Mary, a stainless woman who, by speaking a word, is able in some sense to give Christ being.

For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;
But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,
Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright. (238-40)

The vision of Christ that has appeared, it seems, in the hearts of those who heard the nun’s cry, and therefore she has brought Him to being within them.

All the explanation of suffering is sufficient, then, for the nun. Her suffering is comforted by her triumph. But, the poet asks, what about the others aboard the ship? They are “comfortless” and “unconfessed,” and here one can still question the providence of God to send them to their death as well (244). There is an answer for this too. The nun’s call can act as a call to conversion for them:

The breast of the
Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee? (246-8)

For the unconfessed souls too, the shipwreck is an instrument of salvation. When the unbelievers hear the nun’s cry, they have the chance to repent before their death. Even this seemingly evil thing, the tempest, is a servant of God and brings Him souls.

The poem concludes with several stanzas more of praise: God’s mastership of the ocean, His mercy for the eleventh-hour penitent, and the kindess of His coming. Finally there is a prayer to the nun, now a new saint in heaven. Since she has died on the shores of England, the speaker prays she may intercede for the return of Christ to England:

Our King back, Oh, upon English souls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s
Lord. (276-80)

Christ is the end of the poem as He is the beginning. As John Picks writes,

For its meaning is Christ: it is the story of the Passion and Redemption working themselves out in the lives of men; it tells how Christ, “the martyr-master”, calls the souls of men to Him. . . . So completely does it affirm the Way of the Cross that it is no wonder that the poet cries out, “here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss.” [13]

This is a poem about suffering, but it is a hopeful poem, one in which suffering fits perfectly within the larger view of redemption.

The Wreck of the Deutschland, as Hopkins’ first mature poem, contains the seeds of everything he wrote later. In fact, it seems almost the culmination of his work, even though it was written first. It contains the prosodic experimentation apparent in all his mature work. Passages in the poem also show an intense attention to nature, to its “inscape,” as Hopkins would say. The word “inscape” is a philosophical term Hopkins used, defined by Austin Warren:

An “inscape” is any kind of formed or focused view, any pattern discerned in the natural world. Being so central a word in his vocabulary and motif in his mental life, it moves through some range of meaning: from sense-perceived pattern to inner form. The prefix seems to imply a contrary, an outer-scape—as if to say that an “inscape” is not mechanically or inertly present, but requires personal action, attention, a seeing and seeing into. [14]

In the descriptions of nature in the poem, Hopkins emphasizes the need to “instress,” or fully comprehend the inscape of, nature.
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand. (38-40)

Instress is, in a sense, the finding-out of God behind things, along with finding out the things’ true form.

Because of this emphasis on inscape, instress, and praise of God through nature, The Wreck can be likened to Hopkins’ nature poems, like “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty.” It also contains the same meditative elements as Hopkins’ more strictly religious poems, like “Felix Randal” and “The Bugler’s First Communion.” Finally, in its exploration of suffering without despair, it holds the seeds of the “dark sonnets,” like “Thou Art Indeed Just” and “Carrion Comfort.”

Besides its role as summation of Hopkins’ other poems, The Wreck can be seen as an explanation of Hopkins’ own life. He experienced much physical and mental anguish in his life, but all of it managed to bring him to a fuller conversion and trust in God. He was able to come through the darkness he experienced to end his life with the words, “I am so happy.” These words are not unlike the tall nun’s cry of “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”: they express love and trust even in the face of terrible suffering.

Hopkins was truly a poet in a class of his own. His originality was not, like some other innovative poets, a striving after novelty in itself, much less after poetic fame. Instead, he was a lover of God’s beauty above all, and wanted to mirror that beauty in his verse. Because of this, his Catholicism helped rather than hindered his originality: he knew exactly how broad the truth was, so that he could exercise his freedom within it without wandering outside it. As a result, Hopkins, long after his death, has come into a fame he never expected as a great innovator, lover of beauty, and Catholic poet.


1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, quoted in Robert Bernard Martin, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991), 148.

2. John Henry Cardinal Newman, quoted in Martin, 175-6.

3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in Peter Washington, ed., Gerard Manley Hopkins, Everyman’s Library (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 144.

4. Austin Warren, “Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889),” The Kenyon Critics, Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Makers of Modern Literature (Norfolk, CT: New Direction Books, 1945), 12.

5. Register of the English Province, quoted in Martin, 415.

6. Gerard Manley Hopkins, quoted in John Pick, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Priest and Poet, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 155.

7. Todd K. Bender, Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Classical Background and Critical Reception of His Work (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), 10.

8. Ibid., 12.

9. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in Washington, 138-9.

10. Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Wreck of the Deutschland, in Peter Milward and Raymond Schoder, eds., Readings of “The Wreck”: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of G. M. Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1976), page 2, lines 1-8. All citations of The Wreck of the Deutschland will be from this edition and henceforth will be cited parenthetically in the text by line number.

11. Paul L. Mariani, “O Christ, Christ, Come Quickly! Lexical Plenitude and Primal Cry at the Heart of The Wreck,” in Milward and Schoder, 33.

12. Bender, 83-4.

13. Picks, 41.

14. Warren, 77.


Ibid said...

I should post my term papers up on my blog.

Meredith said...

Bravo! I can't wait for the series...

I'll try to repay you for your cool essay with the following links:

Hopkins set to music!
The Hopkins Quarterly
Hopkins Summer School in Ireland

I've discovered these recently... I'm going to try convincing the library to order the Hopkins Quarterly. It looks good.

And now, a question...

From the footnotes it looks like you read, or at least skimmed, the Hopkins biography (as far as I know, the only one out there). Was it any good? I've heard that it goes into some annoying Freudian theories. I really do want to read a good biography of Hopkins, though.

Sheila said...

No, it was not any good. I didn't read the whole thing, but yes, it was very Freudian. It was trying to prove to me that Hopkins was gay, for example, that he would have benefited from putting more of his desires into action, only the Church wouldn't let him, etc. Of course it put some very negative spin on the dark sonnets ("see, he's losing his faith") and said that all his frequent illnesses were just hypochondria. (Couldn't explain what he died of. That one was most certainly *not* just in his head.)

So, no, I wouldn't recommend A Very Private Life. It took a lot of sifting through all their speculations to get to any hard facts at all. I will grant that it was very complete, but it was very penitential to read. More in my line was Priest and Poet, although I didn't have time to read the whole thing and it is admittedly less complete. What I want are the complete sources of Martin's book -- you can tell he's only quoting a small bit of the available material, and probably getting it out of context anyway. But I don't know whether and how these sources are available.