John Keats once advised his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore.” Gerard Manley Hopkins, a great admirer of Keats, took this advice to heart: every line of his verse is loaded to the brim. Through the innovative use of formal techniques—dense alliteration, the piling up of stressed syllables, the creation of compound adjectives—Hopkins evokes the compressed intensity of sensual experience.

Paul Mariani begins his biography of Hopkins with a line from one of the poet’s best-known sonnets: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Hopkins’s poetry explores the charged presence of the Creator in all forms of creation—in a “landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow, and plough,” in a “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,” in the “wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, / And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.”  

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life is an exemplary and strange work. Mariani, a celebrated biographer of Robert Lowell and Hart Crane, combines literary criticism with insights drawn from Hopkins’s letters and diaries to create a spiritual portrait of his subject. The book itself is organized as a kind of diary: important dates are italicized and boldfaced, the present tense is used throughout, and the writing is often impressionistic and fragmented, with imagery and cadences that echo Hopkins’s own. Describing Hopkins’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, Mariani writes: “So give it a day, a date, a going forth, a crossing over, all in an instant, finally, a yes and a yes again.”

Focusing on matters of the spirit, A Life opens not with Hopkins’s birth in 1844, but with his conversion during his years at Oxford. Mariani writes that Hopkins and many of his classmates had been “quivering like erratic magnets to take that last step of crossing over to Rome, and only waiting for the time when the Spirit [would] summon them there.” In July 1866, while walking in the country at Horsham (mindful of the example of his mentor, John Henry Newman), Hopkins finally committed himself to the journey. From Oxford, Mariani follows Hopkins to the Jesuit novitiate at Roehampton, and then through his many religious assignments: St. Beuno’s, in Wales, to study theology; Liverpool, Glasgow, and other locales as a parish priest; and, finally, University College Dublin, as a professor of classics.

Hopkins’s diaries and correspondence suggest a conscience tortured by an irreconcilable tension—on the one hand, the selflessness demanded by Jesuit discipline; on the other, the seeming self-indulgence of poetic creation. Hopkins longed to take up his cross, but, as Mariani writes, he also saw that the self-interest necessitated by the lyric form “means isolation, means hell, means cutting oneself off from the living waters of the Creator and falling back on one’s sweating self.” After Hopkins decided to enter the priesthood, he burned all his early poetry in what he called a “Slaughter of the Innocents.” He abstained from writing for seven years, until December 1875, when a superior asked him to write about the German passenger ship that had run aground off the coast of England, causing the deaths of a number of passengers, including five nuns. Mariani writes that this invitation “is enough for Hopkins, who has been chafing for years now for just such a chance to release himself from his self-imposed exile and begin composing again.” Hopkins’s masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland” marked his return to writing poetry, but he remained ambivalent about seeking publication. Only a few friends ever saw his work until well after his death.

Hopkins spent his last years in Dublin, his body wracked by bouts of diarrhea, his spirit dulled by the sight of poverty, his hours consumed with grading entrance examinations. The poetry he produced during these years—including the so-called terrible sonnets—was melancholy, haunting in its imagery, yet ultimately redemptive in its outlook. He died June 8, 1889, largely unknown to the wider world. Mariani has studied and lived with Hopkins’s poems for many years—his Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins was published in 1970. In A Life, he combines thorough research with deft literary analysis, offering readings of every major poem and exploring what he calls Hopkins’s “sacramental vision of the world.” Hopkins coined the terms inscape and instress to describe the overflowing presence of the divine within the temporal. Inscape, for Hopkins, is the charged essence, the absolute singularity that gives each created thing its being; instress is both the energy that holds the inscape together and the process by which this inscape is perceived by an observer. We instress the inscape of a tulip, Hopkins would say, when we appreciate the particular delicacy of its petals, when we are enraptured by its specific, inimitable shade of pink.

Mariani is most affecting when describing what he calls Hopkins’s idea of “thisness—the dappled distinctiveness of everything kept in Creation.” He links Hopkins’s concept of inscape and instress to the poet’s abiding devotion to the Eucharist. Hopkins was drawn to Catholicism, Mariani suggests, through the doctrine of the Real Presence, “God dwelling in things as simple as bread and wine...the logical extension of God’s indwelling among us.” His poetry and his religion are necessary to one another: Hopkins was the poet he was because of his Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, and he was the Catholic he was because of his poetic apprehension of reality.

If there is a flaw in A Life, it is that Mariani too often cedes the narrative voice to Hopkins; we struggle to get a wider view of the historical or artistic context. Still, that voice is arresting: Hopkins’s letters, diaries, and sermons are almost as beautiful as his verse. His letters abound in striking, musical imagery—walking on the shore, he sees “big smooth flinty waves, carved and scuppled in shallow grooves.” The letters also expose a wit not always evident in the poems: Robert Browning, Hopkins wrote, had “a way of talking (and making his people talk) with the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from table with mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense.”

Hopkins found his voice through reading other poets—Herbert, Milton, and Tennyson among them. In his development of concepts like inscape and instress, one can see the shadow of Keats, who wrote in an 1819 letter: “I go among the fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass—the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it.” This description of a purposeful creation comes from a poet committed to a rigorously non-Christian outlook. As Mariani shows in A Life, Hopkins’s gift was his ability to combine the sensual and the spiritual, coupling joy in the sheer thisness of the world with a fully developed Catholic sensibility.


Related: Mollie Wilson O'Reilly's review of Ron Hansen's Exiles

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the 2009-03-13 issue: View Contents
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