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An Easter Gift: Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884 - 1889)

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 09, 2009

Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of the greatest English poets, one of the greatest religious poets, and indeed one of the greatest Catholic poets. Hopkins was born into the Anglican Church in 1844, but by the early 1860’s he was becoming increasingly interested in Catholicism. In 1864, Hopkins read John Henry Newman’s moving Apologia Pro Vita Sua, explaining the reasons Newman had entered the Catholic Church. Two years later, Hopkins was received into the Catholic Church by Newman.

Hopkins was already a poet before he became a Catholic, but when he entered the Jesuit Novitiate in 1868, he burned all his poems and decided to write no more poetry unless it should be according to the will of his superiors. By 1872, he had grown to a more mature understanding of the potential good of poetry, and no longer saw it as an obstacle between himself and his priestly calling. He began writing again in 1875 when a German passenger ship, the Deutschland, sank in a storm in the mouth of the Thames, carrying many passengers, including five nuns, to their deaths. Hopkins was ordained in 1877.

In the Wreck of the Deutschland, Hopkins began to incorporate many of the theories he had worked out to give poetry and language itself greater power, including “sprung rhythm”, “instress” and “inscape”. I will not review these theories here, but they make Hopkins’ poetry quite unusual, rhythmically complex, more difficult to read at times, and surprisingly powerful. His poems were sufficiently different that very few were published during his lifetime. Now, however, many readers will be familiar with such examples of Hopkins’ art as “Pied Beauty” (“Glory be to God for dappled things…”) and “God’s Grandeur” (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”).

Hopkins was always troubled by what he perceived as his own inability to give himself wholly to God, and in the latter years of his life he experienced depression—perhaps a dark night of the soul—in which he felt very keenly that God no longer heard his prayers. Nonetheless, he refused to give in to this depression, and when he died of typhoid fever in 1889, his last words were: “I am so happy, so happy.”

Easter was an important theme in Hopkins’ work. This year, let me simply step aside and offer you his words as an Easter gift:

Easter Communion
[Written in 1865, just before his conversion.]

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu's; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

God shall o'er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

Easter
[Written in 1866, the year of his conversion; his poetry is still fairly straightforward.]

Break the box and shed the nard;
Stop not now to count the cost;
Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;
Reck not what the poor have lost;
Upon Christ throw all away:
Know ye, this is Easter Day.

Build His church and deck His shrine,
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine—
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn:
Know ye not 'tis Easter morn?

Gather gladness from the skies;
Take a lesson from the ground;
Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes
And a Spring-time joy have found;
Earth throws Winter's robes away,
Decks herself for Easter Day.

Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe,
Chaplets for dishevelled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.

Seek God's house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer, and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls always
Make each morn an Easter Day.

The Wreck of the Deutschland
To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiled by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875. [Written in late 1875 and 1876, the occasion of Hopkins' resumption of poetry; here his work begins to exhibit the unusual features for which he became famous. This is just the last of 35 stanzas; the Mother Superior is praying to Our Lady for herself, her sisters and her fellow-passengers as they are about to drown.]

            Dame, at our door
            Drowned, and among our shoals,
        Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
            Our King back, oh, upon English souls!
    Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
   More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,
        Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

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