Hopkins was born in 1844 to a family of remarkable accomplishments. His father Manley Hopkins, a high Church Anglican and Sunday school teacher, headed a successful marine insurance business in London. Manley also wrote collections of verse and an unpublished novel, reviewed poetry for the Times, and in 1887 published a treatise on mathematics, The Cardinal Numbers. Gerard Manley Hopkins's uncle was a prominent member of the Hawaiian government service.
His mother Kate Hopkins was a woman of musical and literary tastes, who read German and in later years took an interest in her son's poetry. His father's sister Ann was a painter, musician and student of archeology. Gerard was the eldest of eight children, with three sisters and four brothers, and several of these found careers in art or scholarship. His brothers Arthur and Everard, for example, contributed to Punch, Grace was a talented musician and amateur composer, and Lionel, a consul in China, an authority on the Chinese language. The eldest of his sisters, Milicent, became an Anglican nun. His biographer Bernard Bergonzi comments that only in becoming a Jesuit did he "depart from his family's values and expectations."
In view of Hopkins' two poems on shipwrecks, it is interesting that his father's occupation required constant concern with and discussion of shipwrecks. Manley did appreciate his son's intellect at least to some degree, but he was also stern in matters of religion (and perhaps in paternal authority), and a deep tie between them was in part ruptured by Hopkins's conversion. He interpreted his son's conversion as a personal defection ("O Gerard my darling boy are you indeed gone from me?" he wrote in a letter of October 1866).
One can see that a man who found independence entailed the clouding or rupture of every signficant early tie should have at times been painfuly conscious of isolation.
When Gerard was 8 the family moved to Hampstead (Keats's former home) and from 1854 he attended Highgate School as a boarder. His early schoolwork was characterized by precosity, exactitude, rigor, and rebellion against immediate authority. He was on bad terms with the headmaster, who once hit him with a riding whip.
In his adolescence he showed a tendency toward asceticism; at one point he decided to abstain from all liquids for a week. At the same time he won repeated prizes for scholarship; in 1860 (when he was 16) he won the school prize for a poem on "The Escorial," heavily influenced by Spenser and Keats' "Eve of St. Agnes" and accompanied by scholarly, learned marginal notes, and in 1862 he won his school prize for Latin verse.
He entered Balliol College, Oxford in 1863, beginning a relatively happy period of his life, and began writing his journals. Balliol was one of the more scholastic of the colleges, and Hopkins's tutors included the great classicist Benjamin Jowett and the aesthetic critic Walter Pater (from Brasenose College), and Balliol life was characteried by constant intellectual discussions among the young men. All the members of the college, of course, had pledged to adhere to the Thirty-Nine Articles, chapel attendance was compulsory, and until the 1860s's all the fellows (teachers) had to be clergymen and unmarried.
Anglicans were represented by three competing factions at Oxford--the Tractarians (High-Church heirs of the Oxford Movement), under the leadership of E. B. Pusey, argued that the Anglican church provided a via media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism); the Low Church party or Evangelicals disliked ritual and emphasized individual conscience and the authority of scriptures; and the Broad Church party of Benjamin Jowett and the new historical criticism of scripture, deemphasized formal doctrine and the supernatural. Both the Tractarians and Evangelicals felt threatened by the Broad Church party with its latent potential for scepticism.
At Oxford Walter Pater and John Henry Newman (who converted in 1854) were the most prominent aesthetic and moral influences of the time, and both represented strains of thought which influenced Hopkins. At Oxford also, the philological and linguistic emphasis reinforced Hopkins's exactitude in dealing with texts. His journals reveal his concern with philology, and it is highly useful to study his poetry in the context of continental and British theories of language of the mid-19th century and of the 1860s'. But he was also preoccupied with the aesthetic and formal qualities of art, and a person of multiple interests (art, music, poetry, language). One wonders if some of the science of the day had been available to him through the curriculum, how this might have influenced his poetry (as Shelley was able to integrate the science of the early nineteenth century into his poems).
At Oxford he met to Digby Mackworth Dolben, with whom he exchanged religious poetry; Dolben was a fellow Anglo-Catholic but with an inclination towards Roman Catholicism, who had resolved to become a Catholic after graduation from university but was killed while swimming at age 19. Hopkins wrote to Bridges after his death, "[T]here can very seldom have happened the loss of so much beauty (in body and mind and life) and the promise of still more as there has been in his case--seldom, I mean, in the whole world . . . ." [LB 17] Some years later Dolben was still in Hopkins's thoughts, as a diary entry records in 1873.
He was also close to Robert Bridges and several others; with Bridges he corresponded for much of his life, and of his three principal bodies of correspondence (to Coventry Patmore, R. W. Dixon, and Bridges), that to Bridges is the only one based on personal familiarity. A letter to Bridges describes a visit to the latter as part of as the happiest period of his life, and it was also the period of his decision to convert. As far as I can tell, he never found a replacement within his own order for these intense aesthetic, intellectual and affectional ties of his university period. Bridges, like his father and like virtually everyone else from his background, was repelled by his entry into the Jesuit order.
Conversion to Roman Catholicism:
Hopkins visited Newman in September 1866 and discussed his reasons for conversion to Catholicism. Newman advised him to wait until taking his degree, as in fact he did. His conversion is a reflection of the Anglo-Catholic revival of the period, but it should be pointed out how different was the direction he took from that of most contemporary poets who faced issues of religious doubt and uncertainty -- e. g. Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Dante G. Rossetti and Christina Rossetti.
What in Hopkins's nature may have attracted him to Catholicism? He himself stated that it was not the aesthetic qualities of its ritual. He wrote Manley Hopkins directly before joining the Church: "I am surprised you shd. say fancy and aesthetic tastes have led me to my present state of mind; these wd. be beter satisfied in the Church of England, for bad taste is always meeting one in the accessories of Catholicism" (FL 93). Instead he seems to have been most concerned with the exclusive authority of his faith and responded to the Roman Catholic Church's claim to unity, historical succession, exclusive rule, and moral superiority. Perhaps his personal scrupulosity and concern with exactitude of details made the issue of authority more crucial.
But why the attraction to the Jesuit order? He tended toward independence and rigor of solutions. The Jesuits were a teaching, managerial and missionary order--and in the hierarchy of the time perhaps offered the most distinguished possibilities for his life's work. His early letters and journals show discomfort at his own sensuous/sexual traits and anxiety lest their nature affect his aesthetic expression. He liked to draw and considered a career as a painter, but decided against it, as he wrote his friend Alexander Baillie in 1868, " I once wanted to be a painter. But even if I could I wd. not, I think, now, for the fact is that the higher and more attractive parts of the art put a strain upon the passions which I shd. think it unsafe to encounter," (FL, 231-232). Whatever form of art required representation or drawing of the human figure might have caused ambivalence for him, felt interdiction at root of his response. He was not a rebel; he wished self-restraint, and felt too open a response to physical beauty either in art or poetry could be sinful.
Hopkins's Life after His Conversion:
Hopkins made the decision to become a Jesuit priest fairly early in life, at age 24. After making the decision he was able to travel abroad and study for a period at home, and he practiced describing buildings (as in Ruskin's Stones of Venice) and scenes in the vicinity (Ruskin's Modern Painters).
He hated school teaching at the oratory at Birmingham, and felt isolated there. He felt the pull of other impulses, such as to painting and poetry. At some point he seems to have destroyed his early poems. He entered Manresa House at Roehampton, near London, in 1864 for instruction, and was then sent to Stonyhurst, in northwest England, for a novitiate of two years probation and careful observation. In north England and Wales he also commented on the poverty of the people he was asked to serve.
While there he appreciated the scenery despite the wet and cold, and engaged in peaceful and solitary observations of nature. At this period he turned to writing in his journals, which reflect his gift of poetic nature description ("Chesnuts as bright as coals or spots of vermilion").
He also developed an interest in the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, who had developed an alternative to Aquinian theory concerned with definition by individuating objects and their particular features ("thisness"), a natural interest for a heir of romanticism. Hopkins's concern with individuality is expressed most directly in the doctrine of "inscape," seen in his "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" and other nature poems.
He was next sent back to Roehampton as teacher of Latin, Greek, English and French, and his notes of period on poetry and language are original and exact, and largely concerned with issues of rhythm, meter and prosody. He hated teaching, however, and it caused depression for reasons it's hard to analyze. At the end of his teaching year he noted in his journals, "Altogether perhaps my heart has never been so burdened and cast down as this year" (J 249-50). He was sent for one year to a Jesuit home at St. Beuno's, North Wales, at the age of 30-33, for a "Theologate."
Likewise he had some trouble suiting his carefully prepared and linguistically subtle sermons to his audiences. He recorded of a sermon delivered at St. Beuno's in 1877 that "People laughed at it prodigiously, I saw some of them roll on their chairs with laughter. . . . The last paragraph, in which Make the men sit down is often repeated, far from having a good effect, made them roll more than ever" [SD 233]. At other times he managed a certain blunt simplicity, as when he urged the men of Leigh to avoid the bars: "One of two things: you treat them or they you. If you treat them you like a fool spend your money on the worthless; if they treat you often you are eating their children's bread, you are draining the blood of their little ones. There is no friendship here, no love; there is no love, I say, where nothing comes in but selfishness [SD 41-42].
The best period for Hopkins's poetry was that directly before the priesthood, e. g. "The Windhover." As we have seen, he was attracted to the Welsh culture and landscape, and even wrote a few Welsh poems in cynghanedd mode. He wrote "The Wreck of the Deutschland" in 1875, then afterwards the nature poems. He had been affected by the news of the wreck, and the topic of an elegy on the event was first suggested by his superior. The editor of the Jesuit periodical The Month would not publish it on account of its difficulty; its language and syntax influenced by Greek metaphors and word order, just as his nature poems were influenced by Welsh rhythms. Hopkins tried again in 1878 with "the Loss of the Eurydice," a simpler poem on a shipwreck, which lacks the great inspired crescendos of the "Wreck," but even this was rejected. This his one serious attempt at publication failed, possibly a significant psychological loss.
He finished his training in 1877, the year of several of his greatest nature poems, "God's Grandeur," "The Starlight Night," and "Spring." He was ordained shortly afterwards, and suffered an illness followed by several changes in occupation, beginning with Mount St. Mary's College, near Sheffield. In 1879 he spent a period in Oxford, as assistant priest at St. Aloysius Church, a time which not coincidentally came closest to a second revival in spirits. He visited his former tutor Pater, but still felt his exclusion from official Oxford and experienced personality conflict with his supervisor. At least he had one friend, a Catholic teacher Francis de Paravicini. At Oxford he wrote "Duns Scotus's Oxford," a tribute to his philosophical hero, and "Binsey Poplars," a tribute to a grove of trees on the town's outskirts.
None of his tenures of service were fully satisfactory to the order or to himself, and he was moved frequently. He seemed ill-suited to teaching and oratory, two necessary jobs of the order. It is recorded that his sermons were diffucult to understand, and in one case, even evoked laughter. He was relatively happy in a small town near Manchester, Bedford Leigh, but not in Liverpool, an ardently Catholic district.
He was assigned for a period to Stonyhurst, where he coached students preparing for external B. A. examination of London University, then appointed Professor of Classics at the University of Dublin, the order's highest non-theological academic chair. He never adjusted to the Irish Catholic community, complained of depression from overload. His letters also reveal his disappointment at his failure to achieve a literary audience and recognition, a sense of failure and exile. His correspondence with friends remained important to him. He died in 1889 of tuberculosis at the age of 44, a month before what would have been his 45th birthday. Though a few of his poems were published in his lifetime, a collected volume did not appear until Robert Bridges' edition of 1912. Obviously Bridges delayed in bringing out his friend's poetry, perhaps from a lack of sympathy with their form and content, and his edition imposed many errors in transcription which obscured the poet's intentions. The modernist view that Hopkins's poetry was filled with irony and indeterminate meanings in part arose from their mangled presentation, corrected by Norman MacKenzie's edition of 1967.
It is interesting to follow the chronology of his wrting of poetry--with a few exceptions, his best periods were his first years at Oxford, the period of non-teaching study in Wales, and later of his second stay at Oxford.
The loss of poetic inspiration and ability directly related to depression and sense of exclusion--during these period of exile he wrote a few dark sonnets, but mostly relapses into silence; also began several uncompleted projects on classical subjects, wrote highly original musical composition based on plain chant.
Reiterated personality conflicts and dislike of teaching showed again and again his distaste for the practical and social, qualities needed by a missionary order. His failure to form close human and intellectual ties was perhaps also affected by repression of his homoerotic emotions. Once can wonder also at the possible inappropiateness of the choice of an order which demanded an active life. He retained a deep unwillingnesss to identify with the Irish (although he was the only Englishman in his college), and wrote no poems on Irish laborers or peasants. Instead he sought English heroes--Duns Scotus, Henry Purcell, Harry Ploughman. Characterized by an unrecognized brilliance, he had difficulty in completing projects, and manifested a kind of self-destructiveness half-allied to scrupulousness.
The mystery of his inner life has never been adequately explained. He died relatively young, and perhaps if he had lived another 10 or 12 years his life struggle with the embodied father-figure of God would have found a peaceful and unambivalent resolution, since other poets wrestled with their inner drives well into their 30s and possibly 40s.
(see Bernard Bergonzi, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Macmillan, 1977)