10 great poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and why you should read them – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Whittling down a great poet’s oeuvre to 10 essential must-read poems is always going to be difficult, and the list of the best Hopkins poems which follows is, we confess, somewhat personal. But if you’re looking for an introduction to the spellbinding poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) or an excuse to revisit his work, we hope you’ll enjoy this list, which might be considered a follow-up to our post detailing our favourite Gerard Manley Hopkins facts. Click on the link in the title of each poem to read it.
10. ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord‘. One of a number of very popular sonnets Hopkins wrote, this one earns its place in this top-ten list of the best Hopkins poems because of the wonderful use of language in the phrase, ‘birds build, but not I build’. The poet’s sense of disappointment and frustration with life is brilliantly captured by his inability, here, even to build a simple, clear statement (it would have been very different had Hopkins written ‘birds build, but I don’t build’).
9. ‘Binsey Poplars‘. Hopkins was moved to write this poem after hearing about the felling of some poplar trees in Oxford in 1879. By the end, the poplars were all gone: ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’ (how well that line captures the heartless and systematic felling of the trees through its bald repetition). The end of this poem reminds us a little of the song-like quality of some of Christina Rossetti’s verse; it’s not often that Hopkins reminds us of Rossetti, but there is something in the repetition of phrases and movement of the lines which evokes the song as much as the poem here.
8. ‘Felix Randal‘. Another one of Hopkins’s sonnets, ‘Felix Randal’ was written in response to the news that one of Hopkins’s parishioners had died. Like ‘The Windhover’ (see below) it’s a sonnet, and employs Hopkins’s distinctive sprung rhythm effectively within the longer lines of the poem. (For more on the sonnet form, see our introduction to the sonnet.)
7. ‘Pied Beauty‘. A celebration of ‘dappled things’, from the pattern of clouds in the sky to the ‘stipple’ on the skin of trout, ‘Pied Beauty’ is another sonnet – but a very particular kind of sonnet, the ‘curtal sonnet‘. This shortened form of the usual fourteen-line poem was invented by Hopkins and used in ‘Pied Beauty’ as well as several other poems, but this is the best of them.
6. ‘Carrion Comfort‘. Written in Ireland around the same time as the Terrible Sonnets, ‘Carrion Comfort’ (another sonnet) sees Hopkins refusing to give in to dark despair, no matter how much it wants him to. Worth reading for the last four words alone.
5. ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day‘. One of Hopkins’s ‘Terrible Sonnets’ (so named not because they’re badly written, of course, but because they date from a terrible period of depression in Hopkins’s life – this is actually one of the best Hopkins poems ever!), this poem is one of the finest evocations of a sleepless night that English poetry has produced: ‘But where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life.’ Ouch. Desolation has seldom been expressed so exquisitely.
4. ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves‘. This poem is yet another sonnet, but is another unusual and original take on the form, with each line containing even more syllables than ‘Felix Randal’. In Greek myth the Sibyls were seers who would foretell the future, though their messages would often be cryptic, leaving the recipient to make of them what he or she wished. Many poets have written about evening turning slowly into night, but none had done it quite the way Hopkins does here.
3. ‘God’s Grandeur‘. Starting with the arresting image of the grandeur of God flaming out ‘like shook foil’, this sonnet is among Hopkins’s most widely anthologised. The poet complains that the modern world has lost its spiritual connection with God because we have become estranged from nature: now that we wear shoes, our feet don’t even truly feel the grass beneath our feet!
2. ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland‘. Hopkins gave up writing poetry in the late 1860s when he joined the Society of Jesus, because he thought poetry was self-indulgent. However, an event that occurred in late 1875 convinced him to take up his pen again. ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ was written in 1876 to commemorate the sinking of a ship named the Deutschland. Aboard the ship were five Franciscan nuns, all of whom drowned off the Kentish coast along with nearly 200 other passengers. Hopkins’s poem grapples with the central issue for any believer: how can one reconcile such a tragedy with a belief in a benevolent God? One of the strengths of Hopkins’s poem is that he views God as all-powerful and benevolent but also terrifying and mighty. As we revealed in our post about Hopkins’s life, very little of his poetry was published in his lifetime (1844-89), and the first full book of his writing didn’t appear until 1918. This is Hopkins’s longest poem and was described by his friend (and, later, his first editor) Robert Bridges as ‘like a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance’, because it was printed at the beginning of The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1918. Readers would have to confront and overcome it if they were to make any sense of Hopkins’s poetry. Watch out for the 6ft-tall nun – she was based on real reports of such a nun among the five who lost their lives in the wreck.
1. ‘The Windhover‘. Hopkins himself called ‘The Windhover’ ‘the best thing I ever wrote’; we agree. It’s a tour de force as a piece of nature poetry and devotional poetry, and its language is vibrant and inventive throughout, from its splitting of the word ‘king-dom’ across the first two lines of the sonnet (yes, ‘The Windhover’ is another Hopkins sonnet) to the invented word ‘sillion’. A ‘windhover’ is an old poetic name for the kestrel, and Hopkins’s poem beautifully captures the experience of seeing the bird majestically in flight.
The best edition of Hopkins’s poems to get is Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). It contains a pretty complete collection of Hopkins’s poetry and also includes highlights from his letters and journals, which are written in the same idiosyncratic manner and reflect Hopkins’s individual and distinctive way of looking at the world. It also has a helpful introduction and detailed notes on the poems.
Have we missed any of Hopkins’s greatest poems off this list? Let us know what would make your top 10 of best Hopkins poems, and what would get the top spot.
Discover more great poetry with our pick of the best poems about the moon.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.