Jesuit Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, who died just 125 years ago, is the subject of multiple books, essays and collected works this year. Hopkins, who the London Tablet recently noted “was a rare prodigy,” a poet of major import in our world and one whom Pope Francis admittedly “liked…very much.” Oxford University Press is now completing publication of an eight-volume series of virtually all Hopkins’ poems, letters, sermons, journals and notes.
According to a Jesuit colleague, Joseph A. Feeney, writing in the June Tablet, Hopkins “has indeed joined the immortals, acclaimed throughout the world as a major poet of the English language.” This assessment is quite extraordinary in itself, but it appears even more outstanding since Hopkins’s accolades occurred during the modern era of other literary giants such as T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. (Granted, there is a chronological issue here; Hopkins was born near London in 1844, and died in Dublin in 1889.
Nonetheless, as Father Feeney points out, his fame erupted after the second edition of his Poems appeared in 1930.)
Hopkins’s supreme creation, of course, was his The Wreck of the Deutschland, composed to memorialize the death of a band of five women religious who drowned on 7 Dec., 1875, in a storm on the Thames during their flight from Germany under the anti-Catholic persecution of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck – the so-called Kulturkampf (1872-86). Hopkins, I understand, read about the tragedy in the Times of London, and was especially moved by the reported image of the last Franciscan sister to die for the Faith there; as the ship disappeared into the cyclonic waters, she could be seen standing with arms extended in prayer and heard crying out, “Oh, Christ, Christ come quickly!” Providing the reason for their deaths, the poet wrote these immortal lines: “Loathed for a love men knew in them/Banned by the land of their birth/Rhine refused them. Thames would ruin them.” (Stanza 21)
Bismarck’s crusade against Catholicism, cloaked in the meaning of Kulturkampf, i.e., “a struggle for civilization,” led to a series of laws, known as “the May Laws” or “the Falk Laws” (owing to their chief legislator, Adalbert Falk). Priests, bishops, sisters, religious were either jailed or expelled; and church properties were seized. Only a few religious and/or priests working in hospital apostolates were allowed to remain.
The five Franciscan Sisters who died in the Thames were on their way to the United States. The Deutschland, which means “the German Land,” was the name of the ship on which they took passage. But its tragic fate proved to be prophetic of Bismarck’s own decline; he was also destined for a wreck. The Falk Laws began to disappear by 1877; Falk himself, two years later.
Father Hopkins, incidentally, had come into the church while still at Oxford. Memories of the incomparable Oxford don, John Henry Newman, were still quite alive. In fact, Hopkins wrote to Newman in August 1866, to advise the future cardinal of his interest in Catholicism. And it was Blessed John Newman who eventually received him into the church. After he acquired his degree, moreover, he joined the staff at Newman’s Oratory School.
Hopkins all but invented a new kind of poetic expression known as “sprung rhythm,” typified in such poems as The Windhover: “I caught this morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-drawn Falcon, in his riding…”
One editor of Hopkins’s literary output once expressed the poet’s genius thus: “He rinsed the worn out poetic vocabulary of the mid-Victorian period in the fresh waters of his thought.”
Among Hopkins’s key contributions to the art of English poetry was his persistent, determined and courageous self-dedication to the principle from which the art and scholarship of Europe had emerged; namely, the sanctity that informed and energized Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Like Robert Browning, he became a herald “of all life” and a veritable champion of God’s presence in our midst. Recall his words in the sonnet, God’s Grandeur:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Hopkins was, thank God, one of the finest English poets whom we had to study in our seminary college days at St. Bernard’s, Rochester. We entered his artistic world after reading Browning and Coventry Patmore, just before we took up Francis Thompson.
- The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.