Gerard Manley Hopkins, poet, was born on 28 July 1844 at 87 the Grove, Stratford, London. Hopkins was educated at home and then went on to Oxford in 1863, intending to be a painter. Hopkins gave up on artistic prospects and converted to Roman Catholicism. Hopkins wrote a great deal of poetry at this time, particularly religious verse. From 1874-77 Hopkins studied theology at St Beuno's College in Northern Wales. For the rest of his life, Hopkins was a dedicated Jesuit Priest. He died on 8 June 1889.
Early life and family
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex (now in Greater London), as the eldest of probably nine children to Manley and Catherine Hopkins, née Smith. He was christened at the Anglican church of St John's, Stratford. His father founded a marine insurance firm and at one time served as Hawaiian consul-general in London. He was also for a time churchwarden at St John-at-Hampstead. His grandfather was the physician John Simm Smith, a university colleague of John Keats, and close friend of the eccentric philanthropist Ann Thwaytes. One of his uncles was Charles Gordon Hopkins, a politician of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
As a poet, Hopkins's father published works including A Philosopher's Stone and Other Poems (1843), Pietas Metrica (1849), and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins (1892). He reviewed poetry for The Times and wrote one novel. Catherine (Smith) Hopkins was the daughter of a London physician, particularly fond of music and of reading, especially German philosophy, literature and the novels of Dickens. Both parents were deeply religious high-church Anglicans. Catherine's sister, Maria Smith Giberne, taught her nephew Gerard to sketch. The interest was supported by his uncle, Edward Smith, his great-uncle Richard James Lane, a professional artist, and other family members. Hopkins's initial ambition was to be a painter – he would continue to sketch throughout his life and was inspired as an adult by the work of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Hopkins became a skilled draughtsman. He found his early training in visual art supported his later work as a poet. His siblings drew a lot of inspiration from literature, religion, and the arts. In 1878, Milicent (1849–1946) enrolled in an Anglican sisterhood. Kate (1856–1933) would help Hopkins publish the first edition of his poetry. Hopkins's youngest sister Grace (1857–1945) set many of his poems to music. Lionel (1854–1952) became a world-famous expert on archaic and colloquial Chinese. Arthur (1848–1930) and Everard (1860–1928) were highly successful artists. Cyril (1846–1932) would join his father's insurance firm.
Manley Hopkins moved his family to Hampstead in 1852, near where John Keats had lived 30 years before and close to the green spaces of Hampstead Heath. When he was ten years old, Gerard was sent to board at Highgate School (1854–1863). While studying Keats's poetry, he wrote "The Escorial" (1860), his earliest extant poem. Here he practised early attempts at asceticism. He once argued that most people drank more liquids than they really needed and bet that he could go without drinking for a week. He persisted until his tongue was black and he collapsed at drill. On another occasion he abstained from salt for a week. Among his teachers at Highgate was Richard Watson Dixon, who became an enduring friend and correspondent. Of the older pupils Hopkins recalls in his boarding house, the poet Philip Stanhope Worsley won the Newdigate Prize.
Oxford and priesthood
Hopkins studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford (1863–1867). He began his time in Oxford as a keen socialite and prolific poet, but seems to have alarmed himself with resulting changes in his behaviour. There he forged a lifelong friendship with Robert Bridges (later Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom), which would be important to his development as a poet and in establishing his posthumous acclaim. Hopkins was deeply impressed with the work of Christina Rossetti, who became one of his great contemporary influences. The two met in 1864. During this time he studied with the writer and critic Walter Pater, who tutored him in 1866 and remained a friend until Hopkins left Oxford for the second time in October 1879.
In a journal entry of 6 November 1865, Hopkins declared an ascetic intention for his life and work: "On this day by God's grace I resolved to give up all beauty until I had His leave for it." On 18 January 1866, Hopkins composed his most ascetic poem, The Habit of Perfection. On 23 January, he included poetry in a list of things to be given up for Lent. In July, he decided to become a Roman Catholic and travelled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Roman Catholic Church on 21 October 1866.
The decision to convert estranged Hopkins from his family and from a number of acquaintances. After graduating in 1867, he was provided by Newman with a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham. While there he began to study the violin. On 5 May 1868 Hopkins firmly "resolved to be a religious." Less than a week later, he made a bonfire of his poetry and gave it up almost entirely for seven years. He also felt a call to enter the ministry and decided to become a Jesuit. He paused first to visit Switzerland, which officially forbade Jesuits to enter.
In September 1868 Hopkins began his Jesuit novitiate at Manresa House, Roehampton, under the guidance of Alfred Weld. Two years later he moved to St Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst, for philosophical studies, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on 8 September 1870. He felt that his interest in poetry had stopped him devoting himself wholly to religion. However, on reading Duns Scotus in 1872, he saw how the two need not conflict. He continued to write a detailed prose journal in 1868–1875. Unable to suppress a desire to describe the natural world, he also wrote music, sketched, and for church occasions, wrote "verses", as he called them. He later wrote sermons and other religious pieces.
In 1874 Hopkins returned to Manresa House to teach classics. While studying in the Jesuit house of theological studies, St Beuno's College, near St Asaph in North Wales, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate the foundering of a German ship in a storm. So in 1875 he took up poetry once more to write a lengthy piece, "The Wreck of the Deutschland", inspired by the Deutschland incident, a maritime disaster in which 157 people died, including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws (see Kulturkampf). The work displays both the religious concerns and some of the unusual metre and rhythms of his subsequent poetry not present in his few remaining early works. It not only depicts the dramatic events and heroic deeds, but tells of him reconciling the terrible events with God's higher purpose. The poem was accepted but not printed by a Jesuit publication. This rejection fed his ambivalence about his poetry, most of which remained unpublished until after his death.
Hopkins chose the austere and restrictive life of a Jesuit and was gloomy at times. His biographer Robert Bernard Martin notes that "the life expectancy of a man becoming a novice at twenty-one was twenty-three more years rather than the forty years of males of the same age in the general population." The brilliant student who had left Oxford with first-class honours failed his final theology exam. This almost certainly meant that despite his ordination in 1877, Hopkins would not progress in the order. In 1877 he wrote God's Grandeur, an array of sonnets that included "The Starlight Night". He finished "The Windhover" only a few months before his ordination. His life as a Jesuit trainee, though rigorous, isolated and sometimes unpleasant, at least had some stability; the uncertain and varied work after ordination was even harder on his sensibilities. In October 1877, not long after completing "The Sea and the Skylark" and only a month after his ordination, Hopkins took up duties as sub-minister and teacher at Mount St Mary's College near Sheffield. In July 1878 he became curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London, and in December that of St Aloysius's Church, Oxford, then moving to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. While ministering in Oxford, he became a founding member of The Newman Society, established in 1878 for Catholic members of the University of Oxford. He taught Greek and Latin at Mount St Mary's College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire.
In the late 1880s Hopkins met Matthew Russell of the Irish Monthly, who introduced him to Katharine Tynan and W. B. Yeats.
In 1884 he became a professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin. His English roots and disagreement with the Irish politics of the time, along with his small stature (5 ft 2 in or 1.57 m), unprepossessing nature and personal oddities, reduced his effectiveness as a teacher. This and his isolation in Ireland deepened a gloom that was reflected in his poems of the time, such as "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, not Day". They came to be known as the "terrible sonnets", not for their quality but according to Hopkins's friend Canon Richard Watson Dixon, because they reached the "terrible crystal", meaning they crystallised the melancholic dejection that plagued the latter part of Hopkins's life.
Several influences led to a melancholic state and restricted his poetic inspiration in his last five years. His workload was heavy. He disliked living in Dublin, away from England and friends. He was disappointed at how far Dublin had fallen from its Georgian elegance of the previous century. His general health suffered and his eyesight began to fail. He felt confined and dejected. As a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. To subdue an egotism that he felt would violate the humility required by his religious position, he decided never to publish his poems but Hopkins realised that any true poet requires an audience for criticism and encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent made him feel he had failed at both.
After several years' ill health and bouts of diarrhoea, Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889 at the age of 44 years and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, after a funeral in St Francis Xavier Church in Gardiner Street, located in Georgian Dublin. He is thought to have suffered throughout his life from what today might be labelled bipolar disorder or chronic unipolar depression, and battled a deep sense of melancholic anguish. However, his last words on his death bed were, "I am so happy, I am so happy."