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A poetic biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life by Paul Mariani

John Touhey | Aleteia

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 02/25/24

Gerard Manley Hopkins was considered an eccentric melancholic, but he was spurred on by beauty. The story of his life helps us see what it is to be human.

Recently at a parish trivia night, during the round about the parish priests, the question was asked Who is Father Rennier’s favorite poet? The parishioners, I’m sure, wrote in the answer with a wry smile, because anyone who has heard my preaching for any length of time knows that I incessantly quote Gerard Manley Hopkins. I talk about him until I’m blue in the face.

There’s something about Hopkins I identify with, not only his poetry but the man himself. His conversion from Anglicanism, the attendant feeling of exile, the difficulty of the transition and then feeling slightly out of place as a Catholic priest: all of it is strangely familiar.

Hopkins was considered an eccentric melancholic, and his gifts never trended towards important leadership roles in the Church. His friends and family constantly questioned his choices and thought he surely couldn’t be serious. He couldn’t seriously be committed to Catholicism and the Society of Jesus. Surely, he must be secretly discontented and only sticking it out because of stubbornness. He was a writer with some admirers but was never even close to a bestseller. At the same time, he has a complicated and rich inner life.

Most importantly, everything about Gerard Manley Hopkins is genuine. It is all authentically him. And he couldn’t have been happier.

A handwritten fragment of the poem "The Loss of Eurydice," along with a photo of Hopkins
A handwritten fragment of the poem “The Loss of Eurydice,” along with a photo of Hopkins

Living with urgency

I also love the work of the writer Paul Mariani. Mariani is a Catholic and a poet. He’s also the author of a number of biographies about poets. I’ve read them all. His biography of Hopkins is one of my favorites and I’ve read it multiple times. Recently it was listed as one of Aleteia’s “Big Winter Books” for 2024.

The book is written in a language of urgency. For stretches, it moves directly into the present tense, revealing how pressing the questions are that Hopkins is dealing with, particularly as a young man at Oxford wrestling with the implications of a conversion to Catholicism. Hopkins pours himself into his poetry and notebooks — all his mixed emotions, fears, and consolations of beauty.

Mariani is a poet himself and understands. These are not small choices for Hopkins. The movements in his soul, the poetic process by which he distills and examines his future, these are not unimportant. Within Hopkins is a vast interior landscape, an inscape, that is illuminated by the presence of Christ. It is a world, the soul of this young poet, that Christ inhabits, and indeed for which Christ has died. He dies for Hopkins, just as he dies for you and me.

Meeting God through beauty

As a student at Oxford, Hopkins is already sensitive to this hidden beauty inside of us. It’s how he encounters God. He’s a member of the high-church crowd at Oxford, a group of Anglicans who appreciate ritual. This is the group made famous by John Henry Newman, who was their intellectual leader prior to his conversion to Catholicism. The high-churchmen love beauty, particularly the medieval beauty of English Catholicism. At the same time, they don’t want to actually be Catholic. In fact, to become Catholic may very well mean being removed from Oxford. It certainly will mean being rejected by all one’s friends. This is the reality Hopkins faces as he contemplates conversion.

He must move forward, though. Beauty that spurs him on. He apprehends beauty in Anglicanism, but something is missing. Beauty must be more than pleasant surface appearances. Beauty is Christ, the Beloved, including his suffering and his broken heart. It is love at the heart of all. He is the inscape shining like the sun, crackling with electricity, inside all created things.

A sketch by Gerard Manley Hopkins from his notebooks
A sketch by Gerard Manley Hopkins from his notebooks

A wanderer and watcher

I think the reason I love Mariani’s book so much is because he writes the biography as Hopkins might write it, echoing his poetry. Not only does Mariani understand the subtleties of poetry, analyzing and explaining it in the context of what is happening in Hopkins’s life when he writes each poem, but he also shares deeply from Hopkins’s notebooks. They provide insight into the working method of a great poet but they’re also a key that unlocks the interior life of the man. They also reveal just how closely Hopkins is looking. He wanders the fields, sketching and writing. He’s watching birds turn circles in the sky, farmers plow fields, the wind cleaving shocks of wheat.

Hopkins looks carefully because he knows that if you look at something long enough, it begins to look back. A connection is made, a precious moment of solidarity. In the love that is shared the face of Christ is revealed. There’s urgency to beauty, thus the propulsive force of Hopkins as writer. We perish for lack of beauty, lack of attention. His vocation is to make us stop and look.

Obedient and self-doubting

And yet, there’s always a hint of self doubt. Hopkins, a descriptive poet of great power, doesn’t trust his eyes and occasionally burns his journals and poems. He hesitates to allow editors to read and publish them (although, to be fair, most editors didn’t understand his poems and didn’t want to read or publish them). He shows them to a few close friends, men like Robert Bridges and Coventry Patmore, confident that they have value. But if the Jesuits won’t publish them in their official newspapers and magazines, then he doesn’t want them published at all. His creativity and individuality are always subordinate to his priestly obedience.

Perhaps, because of this, something has been lost. Maybe, if he would have been appreciated in his own time, he would’ve written more and we would have more poetry to read. But, to Hopkins, the loss is worth it. Any time we make progress, we leave pieces of ourselves behind. There is always the cost of the old self, the cost of attention, the cost of love.

I find myself often unwilling to pay that cost, in the paralyzing fear of what might be lost. This is why I frequently ask Hopkins to pray for me. I want to be better at the long lent that is our journey to sainthood. In order to do that, I have to stop counting the cost.

Aleteia's big winter reads 2024 - Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life

In search of treasure

When Hopkins talks about the inscape, the life of Christ inside of us, it isn’t a sentimental, mushy idea. It’s the heat and light of Being. The pearl of great price buried in our souls, the treasure for which a wise person is willing to trade absolutely everything. Feeling for it, looking for it, even if it be laced with fire, bowing us under it like a lash of lightning, this touch of grace, this is what it means to be a human being.

This is what it means to have a poetic sense of life. This is what it means, even in the midst of our Lenten penance, to be happy.

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