To enter Westminster Abbey is to enter into the history of Great Britain. Not only monarchs but also many artists are honored there. In Poets Corner, I was drawn especially to the memorial for Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was an Anglican convert to Catholicism, a man who became a Jesuit priest, teacher and poet, though one who remained unpublished in his lifetime. If you are familiar with Hopkins’s poetry, it is probably at least through the work he considered his masterpiece, "The Windhover." In this sonnet, written in his Welsh-influenced "sprung rhythm," he captures the flight of a falcon above the Welsh landscape, finding in the majesty of the bird, caught in "the achieve, the mastery" of flight, a sign of Christ and his presence in the world.
Last summer I went to the land over which that falcon once flew, for a retreat in northern Wales at St. Beuno’s Ignatian Spirituality Centre. St. Beuno’s was once a Jesuit school, the place where Hopkins studied theology and was ordained a priest, as well as the place where he wrote his best-known poetry. Having abandoned his poetic aspirations as a distraction to his religious vocation, he was encouraged by the Jesuits to write, and both the Welsh language and the Welsh landscape inspired him to compose the lyrical poems which are most frequently read and studied. It was here that he reconciled the two identities for which he is remembered at Westminster Abbey: "Priest and Poet."
Hopkins’s poetry is too dense for full explication here; his collage of images in flux and yet unchanging; his vocabulary of words newly coined or uniquely joined, call for deep study and reflection. What I seek here is to give some impressions of my experiences. I was at St. Beuno’s on retreat. Being in the landscape was the core of the learning experience, for that geography revealed to the poet both a way of looking at the world and a way of writing about it. For Hopkins, the landscape itself was a type of language, as he notes in a journal entry describing "the skyline of hills . . . flowingly written all along the sky." His is a poetry of unique rhythm, one found not in syllables but in stress, what he referred to as "sprung rhythm." However, although they may sound odd to our ears, the poems are intended to sound natural and speech-like. Hopkins, in fact, insisted to his literary executor Robert Bridges that "his verse is less to be read than heard," and we spent each morning listening to the poetry.
And during our free time we read, we wrote and we walked, always praying as Hopkins would have. We were provided various walking tours of the area, one of which was to the Chapel on the Rock which had been constructed by the Jesuit theologians in 1862. I made three efforts to get to the chapel. The first effort ended quite quickly – the slate steps were treacherously slippery and the ground was soft and muddy, and I knew I had better not venture out that day. The next morning, I tried again, planning to do my morning prayer at the chapel. This trip brought me through an overgrown wood, the worn path assuring me, mistakenly, that I was following the correct route. Each of the geographic markers described on the directions – the set of steps, the grotto, the gates – matched, but I found myself at the end with no sign of the promised chapel. Instead, I walked onto a field with an extraordinary view of the surrounding landscape, and going to the back of my breviary which included in its poetry section several Hopkins selections, I read those poems aloud. I felt this was the experience that God had intended for me, and I was resolved that finding the chapel was not essential to my time at St. Beuno’s.
And yet, I still longed to pray in that chapel. The final night, I tried again, this time realizing that I was not to go through the woods but walk beside it (remarkably, the same geographic markers existed within and outside the trees). I saw another retreatant move up the hill and, mentally recording his steps, I proceeded and found myself at the promised gate and walked up a circular rocky path to the chapel. I was not alone at first – there were three of us. The chapel was small; there were several benches and a "wailing wall" into which one could place prayers. I wrote down and inserted my prayers and then I was alone, in prayer, in a spot where Hopkins, too, would have prayed. I thought of the Jesuit men some 150 years ago who built that chapel, I thought of the prayers said there, and I wondered about the answers received.
Back in the retreat house, I saw a sign indicating that St. Beuno’s is trying to raise money for stained glass windows for the small chapel. I hope they do not succeed. I do not want change there. I felt this was perhaps the closest to Hopkins’s experience of St. Bueno’s College one could actually get. There was still the landscape, but a highway cut through part of the valley and electric wires crossed the land. But here in this isolated spot, one was back in time, one was with God as Hopkins had been. The chapel has a gate, and a large rusty key (perhaps 8 inches in length) is required to open it. I felt here I had a key to the spiritual and artistic impulse which inspired the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Hartford, completing his philosophy courses prior to theological studies. He acquired his doctorate in English literature and taught at Manchester Community College for several years prior to his candidacy for priesthood. He ministers at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hartford.