During my senior year in high school, I had an English teacher who was diminutive, elderly and more energetic than teachers half her age. She loved literature, and especially English literature, and this senior-year class was devoted to English literature, except for one six-week period when we studied Don Quixote. (I attended a public high school in Louisiana – an all-boys public high school. Louisiana was not known for educational prowess. No one told my teachers that, and I received an extraordinarily fine education.)
It was during that year that I was introduced to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). We didn’t spend much time on Hopkins; our textbook England in Literature included three of his poems but explained that his poems were never popular with the general reading public because, for one reason, they were “religious in nature” and didn’t “deal with the problems of everyday man.” This textbook was current in 1968-69. I like the textbook, but it does have an attitude.
Hopkins studied under such varied teachers as the Catholic John Henry Cardinal Newman and the aesthete Walter Pater. He loved poetry, but felt compelled to leave his Anglican upbringing for the Catholic Church, and going so far as to become a Jesuit priest. He wrote poetry when he could, but very little was published during his lifetime. Upon his death, he entrusted all of his poems to a friend, Robert Bridges, who delayed publication for almost 30 years, when Bridges himself was Britain’s poet laureate. An expanded edition was published in 1930 by Charles Williams, the friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Additional editions were issued in 1948 and 1967.
His poetry may still not be well known, but his impact has been huge. His innovations in poetic style, which he called “sprung rhythm” for its close connection to spoken speech, influenced W.H Auden, Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas, and generations of poets after them. Hopkins became well known only long after his death, but his influence on poetry continues today.
Here is one of the three poems included in my senior English textbook (yes, I have a copy; I found it at a used book sale). I recommend reading it aloud.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared
And wear’s man’s smudge and shares man’s smell:
Is bare now, not can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright
Poet Stanley Kunitz talks about how he discovered the poetry of Hopkins, and “God’s Grandeur” in particular, and then reads the poem.