Hopkins Agonistes

The Poet’s Quarrel with Himself & God

Toward the end of his life, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) suffered several long bouts of depression. His “dark sonnets” record these episodes with an admirable directness. He told the poet Robert Bridges, a close friend, that the sonnets came to him “like inspirations unbidden and against my will.” Together, they are the record of Hopkins’s effort to understand and resist his darkest moods.

As a Jesuit, he believed that psychological phenomena could have spiritual sources, as well as spiritual consequences. The Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola gave him a method with which to discern the drift of such phenomena. They also required him to take his moods seriously—neither to put them down to mere morbidity (a term of great versatility but little depth in Victorian England), nor to indulge them as the expressions of a noble melancholy.

St. Ignatius considered such moods to be instances of “desolation,” which were to be examined according to a clear set of rules. Four years after Hopkins wrote his dark sonnets, and only five months before his death, he made an Ignatian retreat at St. Stanislaus College, the Irish novitiate in Tullabeg. In retreat notes written on January 1, he described an onset of the anxieties that had troubled him for years:

I began to enter on that course of loathing and hopelessness which I have so often felt before, which made me fear madness and led me to give up the practice of meditation except, as now, in retreat, and here it is again. I could therefore do no more than repeat Justus es, Domine, et rectum judicium tuum.

“Righteous art thou, O Lord, and right are thy judgments.” This acclamation, from Psalm 119, was a counter to Hopkins’s paralyzing distress; it forced his attention away from the apparent sterility of his own life and back to the central assurance of the Christian faith. When self-examination seemed impossibly painful, one could again reflect on the perfect constancy of God, the point of reference for every other spiritual reflection in the Spiritual Exercises. Three months later Hopkins again took up the phrase Justus es in the title and epigraph of a sonnet, “Justus quidem tu es, Domine.” This time, however, he was citing the prophet Jeremiah, who echoes Psalm 119 in his cry of indignation. The first three lines of the sonnet are a straight translation of the text from Jeremiah:


si disputem tecum; verumtamen justa loquar ad te; quare via impiorum prosperatur? etc. (Jerem. xii i.)

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavor end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

The poem recalls the exasperation not only of Jeremiah, but also of Job and the Prodigal Son’s elder brother. It is the exasperation of the faithful servant who feels he has been neglected: not merely deprived of grace but cheated of it. The grace he desires has not disappeared generally, but only from his own life. Birds and bushes have not escaped grace; not even the “sots and thralls of lust” are scapegraces. Only the one who desires (and deserves) grace most seems to have been overlooked. Of course Hopkins did not really believe that anyone can deserve grace, but this is not mainly a poem about belief. Apart from its first four words, it is not concerned with rehearsing or challenging dogmatic truths. Instead, its complaint is personal, addressed not to an inadequate theory, but to a divine person (“Sir”) capable of hearing the complaint but seemingly unwilling to listen.

Hopkins takes the psalmist, and the psalmist’s God, at their word. Man is the crown of creation: “Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou has given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea” (Psalm 8:5–8). Hopkins’s own experience seems to contradict this claim: man may have dominion over the birds and brakes, but they at least flourish, along with the “sots and thralls of lust,” while Hopkins himself, who had devoted his life to God’s “cause,” languishes.

One might expect such a poem to collapse under the weight of self-pity, but somehow it stands firm, supported by the precision and severity of its argument and by a language that matches the bleakness of the experience it decribes. Hopkins is sometimes criticized for the extravagant peculiarity of his meter and diction. It has been suggested by some critics that he was not quite in control of his very considerable gifts. The dark sonnets demonstrate that Hopkins’s poetic mastery was, above all, a self-mastery, a rigorous discipline that allowed him to gauge and ration his verbal effects according to the requirements of each poem. His great expressive power was partly a function of this formal propriety. In the same way that great poetry testifies to what Hopkins would have called the “inscape” of the poet—his individual essence—each achieved poem embodies its own inscape by making use of just those technical resources that are in keeping with its main impulse. “Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, / How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost / Defeat, thwart me?” The dry tone of these lines gives voice to a dryness of spirit that flirts with sarcasm without quite yielding to it. (They remind one of St. Teresa of Ávila’s famous line after she had been thrown off her donkey: “Lord, if that is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”) The “Sir”s in this poem mark an ambivalent distance between the poet and God—a distance of distrust, perhaps, but also one of frustrated intimacy. Hopkins knew the real danger of his complaint was not so much its presumption as its posture of self-enforced separation from God, a separation that left one vulnerable to both pride and despair. Like Hopkins’s other “dark sonnets,” this one explores the close connection between those two sins—and adds another, envy, as the go-between.

In the notes from his retreat at Tullabeg, Hopkins describes the particular tone of his own desolation in terms that prefigure those of “Quidem tu es justus, Domine”:

What is my wretched life? Five wasted years almost have passed in Ireland. I am ashamed of the little I have done, of my waste of time, although my helplessness and weakness is such that I could scarcely do otherwise. And yet the Wise Man warns us against excusing ourselves in that fashion. I cannot then be excused; but what is life without aim, without spur, without help? All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death: yet if I died now I should die imperfect, no master of myself, and that is the worst failure of all. O my God, look down on me.

His lack of productivity was at least partly the symptom of a profound spiritual frustration. His vision of the world as a continual expression of divine providence—the vision that had funded so much of his earlier poetry—had been undermined by a keen sense of his own essential improvidence. The internal coherence of each created thing had been the theme of his art and the key to his spiritual life. When his sense of this coherence failed, it was because he could no longer find evidence of any coherence in himself. Self-contempt came to infect his perception of everything around him. “In fact being unwell I was quite downcast: nature in all her parcels and faculties gaped and fell apart, fatiscebat, like a clod cleaving and holding only by strings of root,” he wrote in his journal. This is sloth in the original sense of the word: not laziness, but acedia. According to St. Ignatius, such paralyzing discouragement was a weapon the devil often chose when he attacked the souls of those intent on holiness, those who “earnestly strive to purify themselves from their sins, and who advance from good to better in the service of God our Lord.” In such cases, “it is common for the evil spirit to cause anxiety and sadness, and to create obstacles based on false reasoning.” Anxiety and sadness were among the principal signs of what Ignatius meant by desolation, which he described in the Exercises as

darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to a loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love. It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord.

This fits Hopkins’s descriptions of himself quite well. Some would say too well. Is it not possible that the ready-made categories of Jesuit spirituality compromised Hopkins’s efforts at self-understanding? Did his willingness to force his individual anxieties into the mold furnished by the Spiritual Exercises not complicate those anxieties unnecessarily? In the post-Freudian age of psychopharmacology and neuroscience, the Ignatian method for the discernment of spirits may seem otiose or fussy, and Hopkins’s fidelity to that method may cause the modern reader to doubt whether the emotions revealed in the dark sonnets are as immediate as they at first seem. One might believe his distress was real enough and yet wonder whether Hopkins shaped this distress, consciously or unconsciously, to make it fit a fixed idea of desolation. One might even suspect that Hopkins’s condition was essentially a psychological problem that he forced into a spiritual disguise.

Such criticism is perhaps inevitable. Insofar as it constitutes an alternative diagnosis of Hopkins’s personal agonies, one’s response to it will depend on one’s confidence in premises of modern psychology that are incompatible with those of Ignatian spirituality as it was understood and practiced by Jesuits of the nineteenth century. Insofar as this kind of criticism constitutes a method of literary interpretation, it depends on a false distinction. For the expression of emotion is never really immediate: one must always select from terms that are to hand. The modern reader may decide that the particular terms Hopkins borrowed are obsolete or otherwise inadequate, but it is unjust and senseless to fault him for borrowing. If we notice the debt that Hopkins’s language owes to St. Ignatius, this is partly because the Ignatian tradition stands out from the dominant intellectual traditions of Victorian England, and even more from our own.

Hopkins was in many ways an original poet, but what distinguishes his dark sonnets in particular is not their originality but the intensity and rigor with which they explore one variation on a common theme, human suffering. In these poems, the abstract formula of the Spiritual Exercises is applied to the refractory material of a particular man’s inner life. The great power of the poetry is precisely in the friction we find at the point of contact between an Ignatian theory of suffering and Hopkins’s real experience of it.

Less than a month after writing “Justus tu es, Domine,” Hopkins wrote another sonnet about his anxieties. In “The shepherd’s brow” (1889) he attempts to use an Ignatian therapy to relieve the problem to which he had earlier given an Ignatian diagnosis. He argues in this poem that his self-loathing is really a kind of self-importance for which the appropriate antidote is not comfort but humility. In the meditation on sin in the first part of the Exercises, St. Ignatius had urged exercitants to abase themselves by means of the following considerations:

1. What am I in comparison to all men?

2. What are men in comparison with the angels and saints of heaven?

3. What is all creation in comparison with God? Then myself alone, what can I be?

4. Let me consider all my own corruption and foulness of body.

5. Let me see myself as a sore and an abscess from whence have come forth so many sins, so many evils, and the most vile poison.

In “The shepherd’s brow” Hopkins concentrates on the second, fourth, and fifth of these thoughts to persuade himself that his own troubles are of no importance when seen in the proper context. He asks himself the psalmist’s rhetorical question “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:14). His answer: Very little.

The shepherd’s brow, fronting forked lightning, owns
The horror and the havoc and the glory
Of it. Angels fall, they are towers, from heaven—a story
Of just, majestical, and giant groans.
But man—we, scaffold of score brittle bones;
Who breathe, from groundlong babyhood to hoary
Age gasp; whose breath is our memento mori
What bass is our viol for tragic tones?
He! Hand to mouth he lives, and voids with shame;
And, blazoned in however bold the name,
Man Jack the man is, just; his mate a hussy.
And I that die these deaths, that feed this flame,
That...in smooth spoons spy life’s masque mirrored: tame
My tempests there, my fire and fever fussy.

Hopkins presents the corruption and meanness of the human body as evidence of man’s insignificance. Beside the great cosmic drama of Satan’s rebellion—“a story / Of just, majestical, and giant groans”—man’s troubles are unimportant, because he is only a mortal animal, frail and ephemeral, a “scaffold of score brittle bones.” The poem argues that the suffering of so negligible a creature must itself be negligible. Whatever man’s pretensions, his life is no more than a frivolous and amusing masque. He is not worthy of real tragedy, because tragedy implies a grandness of scale that he lacks—“What bass is our viol for tragic tones?” The fallen angels could fall because they existed at some height to begin with, whereas our existence begins with “groundlong babyhood” and never advances far beyond that.

In “Justus quidem tu es, Domine,” Hopkins had taken for granted man’s high place in creation. This was in fact the premise of his complaint: How could God show such disregard for the imago Dei? In “The shepherd’s brow,” Hopkins suppresses his old complaints by insisting on man’s lowness. We are no more than animals: we eat, defecate, and are bound to die; our very breath is a memento mori. The death on which Hopkins insists in this poem is not the beginning of eternal life or of anything else. Here death marks not a transition but an abrupt end—hence its power to humiliate. The logic of the poem is essentially materialist and pagan, and Hopkins pursues it to its end: man’s body is proof of his mortality, his mortality proof of his insignificance.

In “Justus quidem tu es, Domine,” the important distinction had been between man and the other animals. Man’s free will and his intelligence were reflections of the Divine Nature and signs of an eternal soul. Hopkins does not explicitly deny the immortality of the soul in “The shepherd’s brow,” but he hides it from view—his own as well as ours. Here the only important distinction is between the unembodied purity of angelic life and man’s base physicality. This is dualism, not Christianity. Indeed, it strays farther from orthodoxy than any of the dualistic heresies ever did. If Manichaeans, for example, believed that spirit and matter are at war with each other, they at least drew the battle line within man, between his body and soul. “The shepherd’s brow” suggests that this line divides God and the angels (including the fallen angels) from everything else (including man).

There is no reason apart from this poem to suspect that Hopkins ever really subscribed to such a view. I think Robert Bridges was right to regard “The shepherd’s brow” as an expression of uncharacteristic cynicism. The trend of the poem’s rhetoric has committed Hopkins to a conclusion that was incompatible with his deepest spiritual and intellectual commitments. And yet the poem was doubtless a faithful representation of his discouragement. He finished only one more poem before his death in June 1889. “To R. B.,” addressed to Bridges, expresses the same bitterness as “The sherherd’s brow,” though not the same forced contempt for the human condition.

Perhaps the strongest answer to the cynicism of “The shepherd’s brow” can be found in a poem Hopkins had written the year before. “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” (1888) also acknowledges the ephemerality of the physical universe, but unlike “The shepherd’s brow,” it does not confuse impermanence with worthlessness.

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air—
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an únfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                                   Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                                   Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
           In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                                   Is immortal diamond.

Hopkins observes that we are surrounded everywhere by evidence of decomposition. He sees that whatever nature does it also undoes, and the undoings are themselves profoundly beautiful: “Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare / Of yestertempest’s creases.” The world’s metabolic violence spares nothing. “Million-fueléd | nature’s bonfire burns on.” Even man, nature’s “clearest selvéd spark,” would appear to be lost in the general conflagration.

For Hopkins, the Resurrection provides an answer both to this Heraclitean intuition and to the “dejection” it can inspire. With the command “Enough!” he interrupts himself. The word signals the beginning of an act of hope. Before it, a catalogue of calamities; after it, the only event that can redress them. There is a similar self-interruption in “The shepherd’s brow” (“But man” etc.) where the poet chides himself for not paying enough attention to uncomfortable facts. But in “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire,” he forces himself away from visible facts toward a comfort that cannot yet be verified by perception. His act of hope in the Resurrection follows from an act of faith in the Incarnation: “In a flash, at a trumpet crash, / I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am...”

The Resurrection and the Incarnation are not demonstrable facts but articles of faith, vouchsafed by revelation. One may for that reason decide that this poem ends with a false solution of the serious problem it describes in its first sixteen lines. From a certain point of view, Hopkins’s comfort will look like an evasion, a loss of nerve. To Christians, it will seem like the only adequate resolution, not only comforting but also true—and comforting because true. But whether one regards the Resurrection and Incarnation as (now) imperceptible realities or as fantasies, one should not be surprised to find Hopkins appealing to them here. For he was never interested in a strictly empirical interpretation of the cosmos. The ideas of inscape and instress, which governed his imagination, are not empirical realities. Although Hopkins loved the world’s surfaces, he was more interested in the meanings those surfaces could disclose or conceal, in signs of what he elsewhere called “the dearest freshness deep down things.” What he sought both in himself and in the rest of creation—and what he achieved in his best poems—was a sustaining coherence. Such coherence gave the visible world its meaning but was not itself visible, except to the eye of faith; and to keep this eye open and clear required both an act of faith and an ongoing effort of imagination.

Related: Anthony Domestico's review of Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, by Paul Mariani

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly's review of Exiles by Ron Hansen

The Upstairs Room by Mary Frances Coady


About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.