The life of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins told through five great pieces of trivia
1. He kept a record of the dirty things he got up to. In his diaries, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) would write ‘O. H.’ whenever he had succumbed to the temptation to, shall we say, pleasure himself. This stood for ‘Old Habits’, but scholars are now largely agreed on what Hopkins was hinting at. As a Jesuit priest of strict self-control – he burned his early poems in 1868 when he joined the Society of Jesus, as he believed that even writing poetry was too self-indulgent for a man of God – he didn’t look kindly on himself when he gave in to these ‘old habits’. Hopkins was homosexual, and homoerotic undercurrents run throughout his work, though as far as we know he never had a romantic relationship with anyone. He also – controversially – viewed writing as a peculiarly ‘male gift’, drawing a covert link between pens and penises, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar pointed out. But lest you think the only interesting Hopkins facts relate to sex, let’s turn to more wholesome pursuits, shall we? Let’s turn to poetry…
Hopkins only started writing poetry again when he discovered the works of medieval theologian Duns Scotus (from whom we get the word ‘dunce’, and about whom Hopkins would write a poem, ‘Duns Scotus’s Oxford’), who showed the young Hopkins that poetry and religion could coexist. His first important poem was the long work The Wreck of the Deutschland (1876), about the sinking of a ship carrying five Franciscan nuns who had been forced to leave Germany because of the Falk Laws (controversial anti-Catholic laws). Hopkins had, by this time, become a Jesuit priest, and this poem, and his poetry as a whole, is strongly infused with a sense of God’s power and majesty. But Hopkins is also determined to discuss the questions that a belief in such a deity raises: how can God allow such things to happen?
2. Most of his poems weren’t published until 1918. However, although it’s true that much of Hopkins’s work only saw publication when his friend, the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, published his complete poems in 1918 – nearly 30 years after Hopkins’s death – a number of poems had already been published. Bridges felt the need to introduce the world to his friend’s unusual writing style gradually, so he published six of them in an anthology called The Spirit of Man in 1916. However, it is true that none of Hopkins’s poetry saw publication during the poet’s lifetime (The Wreck of the Deutschland had been rejected by the Jesuit publication The Month), and that he appears to have been reluctant to get any of it into print. The fact that Bridges waited so long to publish the poems tells us something about how daringly new Hopkins’s style was: until the modernists arrived on the poetic scene, with T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in the second decade of the twentieth century, Bridges sensed that his late friend’s poetry would not meet with a sympathetic readership. (We’ve compiled our pick of Hopkins’s best poems here.)
3. At school he once abstained from all liquids for a whole week. While he was at Highgate School, Hopkins claimed that most people drank more liquids than they needed to. He wagered with school-friends that he could go without water and milk for at least a week. He kept this up until his tongue turned black. Eventually, he collapsed at drill.
4. The word ‘sillion’, which appears in probably his most famous poem, doesn’t exist. Or rather, it does now! Hopkins’s most widely anthologised and best-loved poem is probably ‘The Windhover’, which, like many of his famous poems, is actually a sonnet – a standard Petrarchan sonnet with the traditional 14 lines. (Though each line is longer than the standard ten-syllable line you’d expect from a sonnet, and the rhythm is unpredictable – thanks to the ‘sprung rhythm’ which Hopkins pioneered in his poetry, influenced by Anglo-Saxon poetry and the rhythms of the Welsh language, among other sources.) In this poem about the windhover (another name for the kestrel), Hopkins refers to ‘plough down sillion’, but what is sillion? It’s the name for the shiny soil that is turned over in the act of ploughing a field. But the word didn’t exist before Hopkins coined it, probably by adapting the French sillon meaning ‘furrow’.
Hopkins is also credited with either coining or popularising a number of other words, the most famous of which is ‘inscape’, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the individual or essential quality of a thing; the uniqueness of an observed object, scene, event, etc.’ The companion-word ‘instress’, ‘the force or energy which sustains an inscape’, has proved less popular, though ‘lovescape’, which appears in The Wreck of the Deutschland and describes ‘a view, depiction, or evocation of love’, deserves to be revived. Other coinages include ‘outscape’ (the outward appearance of a region’), ‘selve’ (‘to become and act as a unique self’), ‘stressy’ (for poetry that is particularly characterised by stress and rhythm, as was Hopkins’s ‘sprung rhythm’), and ‘twindle’, a nice portmanteau of (probably) ‘twist’ and ‘dwindle’.
5. He invented a new form of sonnet called the ‘curtal sonnet’. As well as inventing new words, Gerard Manley Hopkins also invented a new sonnet form (‘curtal’ means shortened, as in ‘curtailed’). This is an 11-line take on the usual 14-line Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet. Hopkins wrote three poems in this form, the most famous of which is ‘Pied Beauty‘. He also later wrote what are referred to as the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ (these comprise ‘To Seem the Stranger’, ‘I Wake and Feel’, ‘Patience’, ‘My Own Heart’, ‘Carrion Comfort’, and ‘No Worst, There Is None’), while working in Dublin. He was unhappy there, owing to a heavy workload, and, after falling ill with typhoid, died aged just 44 in 1889. Although he was depressed in his final years, his last words were reportedly ‘I am so happy, so happy’. In a letter to Robert Bridges in October 1879, he had given his friend this piece of sage advice on how to read his poetry: ‘Take breath and read it with the ears, as I always wish to be read, and my verse becomes all right.’
Image: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.