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Books That Rocked My World: The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

September 18, 2017


The world of books is as deep as it is wonderous. It’s amazing how books written centuries ago can still start a spark in our modern minds. C.S. Lewis once said, “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” We recently asked our writing team to consider what book, not published in the last century, has most impacted their life? Today, Holly Ordway discusses the profundity and life-changing poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 



When Word on Fire asked me which book, not published in the last century, has most changed me, I knew what the topic of my post had to be: the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this poet taught me how to pray.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), now known as one of the finest poets of the Victorian era, was also a Jesuit priest, and a convert to Catholicism from the Church of England. I first encountered him as an undergraduate English major, when I was an agnostic rapidly sliding toward atheism. His “The Windhover” moved me deeply, though I didn’t then understand why. Hopkins sang the glorious praises of Christ, in the image of the soaring hawk: I barely knew who Christ was, and certainly didn’t believe in him, but I thrilled to the beauty of Hopkins’ words, to “the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” Dangerous, indeed! I little knew what I was in for, when I would come, later, to know Our Lord for myself.

Hopkins, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, pointed me toward a recognition of truth, goodness, and beauty; toward the reality of God, the truth of the Christian faith. I didn’t follow their lead then, but the seeds they planted would bear fruit in due time.

When – years later – I was grappling with questions of the faith, drawing closer to conversion, Hopkins was there again. “Carrion Comfort” was a bracing recognition that this Christianity, if it were true, offered more than warm, fuzzy platitudes. Hopkins knew what it was to be pushed to the very last limits of one’s endurance, such that simply not giving up was the greatest victory possible:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;       

Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man  

In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;         

Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be. 

 He knew all about pain – but, Hopkins said, pain is not the end of the story. I believed him: he’d been there and come through it to tell the tale. More than that: Hopkins showed me that in a mysterious way, suffering could be meaningful; that ‘the way of the Cross’ had significance in every Christian’s life. That’s an insight that will take a lifetime to begin to understand, but Hopkins did me a very great service by showing it to me in those early days.

Then, as a new Christian, I found Hopkins once again an invaluable guide. God is God; Jesus Christ is Lord; now what? What does it mean to pray, to praise, to worship and adore? Much of that I learned through practice, above all through the liturgy at my Anglo-Catholic church, but I also learned a great deal from the poets, and Hopkins above all.

A poem like “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” (which takes its epigraph from Jeremiah 12:1) provided a bridge for me to begin to appreciate the great laments found in Holy Scripture. Furthermore, it showed me that poetry was a way to engage with the tough questions that, in due time, it would become my job as an apologist to address. Hopkins taught me that one could, and should, be perfectly straightforward about the difficult questions: “Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must / Disappointment all I endeavour end?”

But if Hopkins excelled at lament, he also knew how to praise, as with the doxology of “Pied Beauty,” and what’s more, he praised with a poet’s keen eye. “Glory be to God,” he cries, “for dappled things – / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; / . . . Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; / Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; / And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.” No bland clichés for Hopkins, but a vivid, clear, vibrant picture of God’s creation and man’s place in it.

As a new Christian, my attitude toward spiritual growth could have been summed up by, “Are we there yet?” Impatience was a weakness that could easily have undermined the growth that was, slowly and steadily, going on in my soul. Hopkins’ poems are themselves conducive to the cultivation of patience, because they are – to put it bluntly – often quite difficult to understand. In some of his poems, his complex, often fragmented syntax reflects the strain of holding so much meaning for each word and phrase. Even his poems that are more straightforward in their structure and phrasing are so rich in their images and language that they reward extended reflection. His poems taught me that neither prayer nor poetry-reading can be dictated to, demanding immediate results.  

As if that weren’t enough, around this time in my life, I stumbled across two poems of Hopkins’ that I’d not encountered before: “My own heart let me have more pity on” and “Patience, hard thing!” It was as if Hopkins had tapped me on the shoulder and said, gently, “I understand. Spiritual growth is hard, isn’t it? But it’s worth it. All in good time, my friend.” What does it mean to be patient? It means to take things in God’s time, not mine; to turn over to Him all that I am, and have. That is, again, a lesson that takes a lifetime to learn, but Hopkins gave me a starting point.

Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks    

Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. . . .

    We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills        

              To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills                  

Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.    

And where is he who more and more distils

   Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills      

       His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.         

Fast-forward a few years. I had – like Hopkins! – made the step into the Catholic Church. As it happens, the church in Oxford, England where I first went to Mass after realizing I would become a Catholic, was the Oxford Oratory, where Hopkins served as curate; now, it’s a church I attend regularly when I’m in Oxford on my summer holidays each year.

As a Catholic, I discovered that Hopkins, old friend as he now was, had yet more to show me. I began to appreciate more fully the poems where he rejoiced in the beauty of God’s creation, and pointed toward God’s sacramental presence in the world: poems like “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” and “God’s Grandeur.”

With delight, I discovered his poetry celebrating Our Lady – poems which I’d skimmed over when I was an Anglican trying to avoid becoming a Catholic. His sheer delight in the Mother of God helped me glimpse what childlike faith looks like. Jesus loves his Mother; shouldn’t we, as well? “The May Magnificat” rejoices with a simplicity of language that drew me in; the more complex “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe” helped me to grasp that Mary did indeed have a special place in relationship with us: she is a created being, a woman who needed her Savior, yes – but a woman, by God’s own choice, who is necessarily and intrinsically connected to the Incarnation: “Through her we may see him / Made sweeter, not made dim. . .” Her glory is to do God’s will perfectly, in all things: and Hopkins celebrates this, her “high motherhood” toward all of us.

Hopkins didn’t have success as a poet in his lifetime, nor was he particularly successful, by the world’s standards, in the rest of his life; particularly in his final teaching position in Ireland, he struggled with overwork, loneliness, and ill-health. As a writer myself, I must heed Hopkins’ witness, and strive to do my very best without pride or fear, offering it all up to God to use my work as He wills, regardless of what visible success (or lack thereof) I achieve. Hopkins’ faithfulness in his vocation as a priest is, I believe, deeply connected to the fruitfulness of his poetry; I think of him and of other priests (Newman, Benson, Knox, St John Paul…) whose service to the Church included being writers, and I am reminded especially to pray for, and to support and encourage, those whose vocation includes this double gift.

For it is indeed a gift, to write words that point toward truth, beauty, and goodness, and that help to lead people – step by tiny step – further into the Faith.

Gerard Manley Hopkins – pray for us!