Hopkins’ poems: sprung rhythm and ‘unmanly grief’?

If I were to find myself in a position where I would write a thesis about someone who had a creative and intriguing life, a contender for my  research and attention would be the priest and  poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (1844-1889). He had a fascinating and tragic time on earth: his life was short and his experiences harsh, but he wrote poems which are both visually and aurally beautiful. Given his stoical dedication to Catholicism after his conversion, when he was urged to suppress his creativity, it is incredible that he was able to achieve writing of such emotional depth and meaning.

Born to Anglican parents, Hopkins won a scholarship and he was subsequently educated at Oxford, at Balliol, where he studied classics. He took vows as a Jesuit priest in 1870, choosing the austere life of chastity, poverty  and obedience. On his deathbed, his last words are said to have been: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’

GAF Balliol Greg Smolonski
Balliol College, Oxford

Yet most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death and, because of his dedication and faith, he tried to suppress his desire to describe the physical beauty of the natural world: a creative man, he also wrote music and sketched, but was committed to sacrifice any personal ambition, so he burned many of his his early works.

A Jesuit’s workload was heavy and he struggled with his hard life in Wales, the North of England and Dublin. His work as a parish priest was exhausting  and he  often felt that his prayers did not reach God and he suffered from bouts of deep depression. He struggled with ill health for years and his eyesight failed.

His lifestyle  and workload and his belief in an austere God  forced him to subdue any egotism which might occur as a result of his artistic creativity. He was lonely and unwell, struggling with the dilemma of  being a writer who glorified in nature but was not allowed to publish his poems. He spent his last years in Dublin where where he died of typhoid, aged 44.

Behind this private, constricted man who was not the most effective teacher or priest is the most incredible poetic genius, although his poetry lacked real acknowledgement in his lifetime. Influenced by the Welsh language, he used archaic (eg: sillion) and dialect words and devised a number of new ones (eg: twindled) and his use of hyphens, compound adjectives and alliteration combined to create the evocative ‘sprung rhythm’.

At 5 feet 2 inches tall, Hopkins did not see himself as a prepossessing man: it is a paradox that his sensuous religious poetry comes from his need to restrict and repress his feelings. One explanation of this may be to do with his relationship with Digby Dolben, four years his junior and the cousin of his Oxonian friend, later the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. Hopkins corresponded with Dolben and wrote poems about him, but then was told by his High Anglian Confessor to sever the contact.


Dolben drowned in 1867 and Hopkins was deeply affected. His poems are marked by a powerful eroticism, which could be all the more poignant and tragic, given his suppressed desires. In his poetic writing, he fuses nature, religion and love, the imagery going beyond sublimation to encompass yearning and to show his stifled appetite: many writers have interpreted his works as an exegesis for his homosexual love. His poetry can be identified for its striking language and his extensive use of onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance and also rhyme, which appears both internally and at the end of lines. His spondaic meter and visual language communicate his joy and longing, his delight in the beauty of nature and his fear of its powers, controlled by a changeable, magnificent God.

Some of his most famous poems include God’s Grandeur and Pied Beauty, which glorify the wonders of divine creation but also show him determined to escape the constraints of conventional metre and running rhythm. The Wreck of the Deutschland  is an ode in stanza form, dedicated to the nuns who died in the storm, but it is also a lyrical theodicy, attempting to justify the cruel ways of God to mankind.

His language expresses his adoration and his incredulity of God’s powers but Hopkins has a clear dilemma with the works of a ruthless God and his personal  strivings for submissiveness and resignation, and his feelings of abandonment , found in lines such as :

‘and dost thou touch me afresh? Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.’

The male figure of Christ enabled him to express his glorification of God but also to demonstrate a human passion for physical beauty and erotic love.

He wrote the sonnet, The Windhover, in 1877. It can be read on several levels and it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing by the genius Hopkins, whether he is talking about his passion  for God, for nature, or for man.

To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom
of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.


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