Hopkins Lectures 2007





























































The Church in juvenile poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Aleksandra Kedzierska

Seeing a gap Hopkins's scholarship, Kedzierska attempts to reconstruct from the textual evidence available, the image of the church he evoked in the priest-poet, Hopkins poems. The focus is on his juvenilia.

Dr hab. Aleksandra Kedzierska Instytut Anglistyki, UMCS, Lublin, POLAND

Although much - and from different angles - has been written about Gerard Manley. Hopkins's priesthood, far too little attention has been paid to the depiction of the Church he strove to build also in his poems. Despite the many building blocks he left for the critics to work with, he still has no church he could truly belong to, and failed thus even by his poetic heaven-haven, he is still exposed to the fate of the 'fortune's football'. Hence, in an attempt to make up for this rather disrespectful gap in Hopkins's scholarship, and, simultaneously, to put an end to the paradoxical homelessness of the priest poet, this essay will concern itself with reconstructing, from the textual evidence available, the image of the church he evoked in his poems. As, however, the is a very complex topic, it is my intention to focus on the least known of Hopkins's works, his juvenilia.

Having survived the "Slaughter of the Innocents" (May 1868), preserved either in Gerard's copybook or in his journals, or else thanks to his friends, whose possessions they had become, these early verses shed upon the peculiar artistic and spiritual ripening which led Hopkins to become a Catholic priest. While studying them, one finds a rather meager assortment of architectural details scattered from poem to poem: "these walls" in "The Half-way House", the chapel's façade and the steep roof in "To Oxford II" or "the sanctuary's side" in "The Habit of Perfection". Sometimes the altar - alone or with an adjacent tabernacle ("The Habit of Perfection") will command attention, and this inside view is occasionally enriched with a gathering of worshippers participating in the mass ("Easter Communion", "Easter"). Nevertheless, despite their scarcity and incompleteness, these architectural details provided in Hopkins's juvenile poems have quite a story to unveil. While chronicling various stages in the erection of his poetic church, they render the poet's progression towards and his conversion to Catholicism, the condition of the church he was about to leave and his own situation in it.


It seems more than appropriate to begin Hopkins's "tale of bricks " ("A Soliloquy" 1864) with a poem entitled "Barnfloor and Winepress" (1865) which, pointing to the origins of the Christian Church and its liturgy, illustrates how the Great Sacrifice of Jesus -- the Bread of Life (John 6, 32-6), and 'real vine' (John 15, 1) - came to be the "firm foundation" (Matt. 7, 24-6) on which to build the true, everlasting covenant between God and man. Paving the road for Hopkins's subsequent adoption of the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation (McNees 86), the poem focuses on the spatial realms of barn floor and winepress - church horizontals as it were -- which, participating in the true "joy of harvest", are both directly involved in the Eucharistic processing of grain and fruit whose images ("bruised sore" and "scourged upon the threshing floor", then "racked") translate into Christ's body being first tortured and then crucified (McNees 87). Thrown away, "leafless, lifeless, dry", the "riv'n Vine bore its "terrible fruit" on Easter morning, when it reappeared as "the Tree". Not only did it overspread the whole world, but it became a new axis mundi , a vertical beam linking heaven and earth. This raising of the Cross/ Tree, Eliade argues, would consecrate the territory, and the land taken in possession in the name of Jesus would be renewed and recreated: "For through Christ 'old things are passed away(.) [and] all things become new' (II Corinthians 5, 17)" (Eliade 33).

Thou that on sin's wages starvest,
Behold we have the joy in harvest:
For us was gather'd the first fruits,
For us was lifted from the roots,
Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore,
Scourged upon the threshing floor;
Where the upper mill-stone roof'd His head,
At morn we found the heavenly Bread,
And, on a thousand altars laid,
Christ our Sacrifice is made!
Thou whose dry plot for moisture gapes,
We shout with them who tread the grapes:
For us the Vine was fenced with thorn,
Five ways the precious branches torn;
Terrible fruit was on the tree
In the acre of Gethsemane;
For us by Calvary's distress
The wine was rack'd from the press'
Now in our altar-vessels stored
Is the sweet Vintage of our Lord.
In Joseph's garden they threw by
The riv'n Vine, leafless, lifeless, dry:
On Easter morn the Tree was forth,
In forty days reach'd heaven from earth;
Soon the whole world is overspread;
Ye weary, come into the shade (GMH 16-17)

Organizing the Christian world as the "only real and really existing space", and thus enabling men "to live in the real sense" (Eliade 22), this fixed centre of the Cross fixes the limits of the world and establishes its order (Eliade 30). Thus, grown out of the tree of "Calvary's distress", the church is built on the cruciform, a paradoxical construction which no walls limit, with the earth for its floor, heaven for its roof and Christ, the Holy of Holies, for its centre, the sacrificial table on which the nourishment of the Cross takes place, the communion allowing man to be "grafted on His wood", to step out of the ordinary and into sacred time, to reactualize sacred events of the time of origins (cf. Durham).

This offering of bread and wine contrasts with the Old Testament world of Samaria (alluded to in the poem's motto 2 Kings 6, 27), the space of siege and hunger so terrible that people, no longer willing to believe in God's help, resort to cannibalism. And yet (however late and paradoxical) help comes as the church, which, being God's answer to men in need, is the sign of the invitation for "the weary" to "come into its shade" and a reminder of the strength and sustenance one can absorb from the Eucharist. Transformed by the Great Sacrifice, a concrete space of human existence marked by war, famine and lowly work, the world of those starved "on sin's wages" becomes sacred and mythical, providing a release from trespass and a way into salvation; the land of abundance which no longer has to "gape" for moisture and in which a "dry plot" gives way to fertility of the field wherein Christ Himself tends His crops, personally planting His people and, most importantly, making them "bear His leaf".

Already this early representation of the church as winepress and barn floor demonstrates that its meaning transcends that of a physical construction, revealing its nature both as ecclesia — "a gathering of the called out ones" (1) (the weary invited into shade), and the bond (personal, physical and spiritual) of the Cross — the communion that man too must labour towards. In a way this is what Hopkins will be doing in many of his juvenile poems, also in a spatial sense: trying to find the church in which "grafted on Christ's wood" he could experience the closeness he believed would never fully consummate as a Protestant.


Composed during Hopkins's university days, his sonnet "To Oxford II" (1865), somewhat irreverently presents a Balliol chapel (one of the works of the famous Victorian architect William Butterfield: cf. Frank 89) whose major significance seems to lie in its being de-spiritualized, used only as part of a purely aesthetic experiment in perception. Coming "underneath" the side of the building, the viewer can so control the skyline that, as if acknowledging the presence of the master,

(.) the mason's levels, courses, all
The vigorous horizontals, each way fall
in bows above my head, as falsified
By visual compulsion, till I hide
The steep-up roof at last against the small
Eclipsing parapet; yet above the wall
The sumptuous ridge-crest leave to poise and ride. (GMH 22)

Apparently attracted to an action which involves tension — strain and release — the speaker "bows the horizontals", and this reshaping of structure suggests the act of an independent spirit, fond of "filtering [and] changing the objects of his perception" (Frank 90). And yet, however playful and innocent they might appear, his daring transformations eventually bring about the "fall" of the elements of the vigorous architecture against which he exercises his power. More importantly, this "fall" may be said to point to the speaker's sin of pride manifest not only in his enjoying the spectacle of the optical illusion he creates, but also in making others (both readers/onlookers and elements of the design) participate in the act. This "visual compulsion" is further enhanced by the rhyme scheme which effectively "bows" the same sound cluster ("all") into ever different contexts, and as exemplified by a sequence "all"/ "f+all" + "f+al+sified", achieving phenomenal results. By means of this morpho-phonetic "warp", the speaker not only exposes the dangers of transformation (sometimes leading to a dissolution of the original meaning), demonstrating at the same time an existence of an intimate connection between "falsification" and "fall", invariably involving some kind of manipulation of multitudes.

Aware of his 'perceptive' irreverence, yet also of his transforming potential, he redeems himself when, by another act of reshuffling -- by hiding "the steep-up roof at last against the small / Eclipsing parapet" - he restores the view to its more familiar sight. But then, above the chapel wall, another "bye-way beauty" seems to attract his attention, "the sumptuous ridge-crest " of Oxford rooftops, which again tempts him into taking a route which "None besides me … try", another detour around and away from the conventional.

Thus, although the speaker's journey towards the unique has started quite humbly, "underneath the chapel side", he does not allow himself to become "eclipsed" by its shadow; striking back, he manages to eventually eclipse "the building for the parts of it" (Frank 90), deconstructing it into levels, resisting the horizontals, and either changing them or escaping higher, "above the wall", in the direction of "shapen flags and drilled holes of the sky". If, for the sake of speculation, one assumes that the speaker's attitude to the sanctuary reflects his stand on the religion it represents, then the young man of Balliol shows himself almost as a free thinker, seeking for possibilities to adjust it to his liking, naïve in his youthful conviction that he can change the church all by himself.

And yet, even though it finally helped the man to "look up, at the skies", the Protestant chapel, characterized above all as an accomplice instrumental in human deception, seems to defy the spiritual symbolism of Oxford, and its character of sanctuary is further undermined when the speaker neither wishes to enter it nor even to admire its view for its own sake.


Could it be that the exterior of the chapel had more to offer than its interior? If so, no wonder that the man's estrangement also continues in "The Half-way House" (2) (1865), a poem whose title, alluding to J.H. Newman's famous comment on Anglicanism, sets the speaker out on his path towards Rome. Moving away from an urban landscape, detaching himself also from Anglicanism and its eponymous institution, the speaker starts his quest on the "mountain-side" where he was "shown Love" and where thanks to his hierophanic experience he realized his need to meet God again. However, with God ( invariably described as being "above" and "away) riding "on wings", this desire is by no means easy to fulfil: no matter how fast the speaker keeps moving, he always stays behind and, frustrated by his slowness ("creep"), he can but plead: "Love, come down to me if Thy name be Love".

Love I was shown upon the mountain-side
My national old Egyptian reed gave way;
I took of vine a cross-barred rod or rood.
The next I hunger'd (.)
Peace and food cheered mw where four ways meet.
Hear my paradox: Love , when all is given,
To see Thee, to love, love;
I must o'ertake Thee at once and under heaven

If I shall o'ertake Thee at last above.
You have your wish; enter theses walls, one said.
He is with you in the breaking of the bread. (GMH 28-9)

As the man's following the road gives him a chance to transform potentiality into actuality (cf. Toporov 57), eventually he reaches the place "where four rough ways meet", that decisive point in his quest where, still incapable of overtaking the Divine, and still only "under heaven", he must make up his mind whether to go on or simply give up and return where he has come from. Symbolically, a continuation of the journey and its successful completion- catching up with His Love — guarantees the man the access to the values and treasures (cf. B. Uspensky 185) God represents. A regression, in turn, will unavoidably bring the man back to the place the leaving of which has enabled him to experience his revelation "upon the mountain side" thus opening up for him new horizons. However tough his test of faith seems to be, the man is by no means left without help. After all he finds himself at the crossroads, that mythopoeic centre of the world, where intersection (with its inherent image of the cross), as well as a possibility of communication between heaven and earth, allows for the assistance being sent to the seeker the minute he really needs it.

None the less, determined as the man is to catch his Love before "the drop of day", his efforts miscarry possibly due to an old allegiance which still binds him. Hence it is only when "My national old Egyptian reed gave way; [and] I took of vine a cross-barred rod or rood" that his chase for Love finally seems to acquire the right direction.

If Eliade is right claiming that the man's "staff" (or any other image such as pole, rod, pillar etc.), which stands for the axis mundi , allows for the man's orientation in space and makes possible his communication with heaven (37), then its destruction is indeed a moment of doom, and denotes a catastrophe comparable to the end of the world (33). For, in truth, deprived of his priceless, spiritual "compass" man has no future and his world must simply revert to chaos. Unless, that is, like a Hopkins' speaker, he finds a new means of organizing his space, a rod he conveniently comes across in "The Halfway-House".

In the symbol of the treacherous cane, prophesied (Isaiah 36:6) to wound its holder, the Anglican Church reveals its weakness against the oppressions of fate. Too pliable to offer an adequate and unwavering support, it proves inferior to the rood, which is more lasting and solid to lean on. Thus, his deliberate choice of the Vine further confirms his progression away from the discredited Halfway-House of the title. The power of the new staff makes itself felt when, realizing what an impossible task he was assigned (to capture God), the speaker hears a voice prompting him what to do: "enter these walls, one said /He is with you in the breaking of the bread". Left behind is the familiar but spiritually ineffective Anglicanism; ahead, already in view, or at least close enough to apply a demonstrative phrase "these walls", waits the real Presence and the reality of Catholicism with its space of promise and fulfilment; a prospect of an encounter with the Divine in the sacramental sharing of the bread, an encounter during which invisible God, having assumed the concrete, visible and tangible form of the Host, will deliberately abandon Himself to the seeker.

It should be noted, nevertheless, that in spite of the invitation "the walls" extend to the speaker, quite significantly, the man stops short of entering the place. Ignoring the voice makes him trifle away the gift of the journey, his private Exodus from the Egypt of the enslavement to the false creed which through the contemplation of the desert/wilderness was to lead him into the Promised Land. He remains outside, looking at what perhaps reveals itself as a replica of his soul, the halfway-house most difficult to renounce, for, unlike the national reed, he carries it within himself. Thus forced to confront not only his doubts and fears of the future but also of his spiritual limitations, as if suspended between trust in and fear of God, he can but wait and hope to become spiritually stronger and more mature.


He seems to regain his courage through a meditation on attaining a higher level of perfection ("The Habit of Perfection" 1866), which, being a way to compensate for the lost chance, provides him with a new opportunity to negotiate the walls. Praying to transcend his senses and progressing in self-abnegation, the speaker - if only in his imagination - eventually turns into a model of awareness and discipline. He gradually discovers how concrete and in fact sensual, God is, defined for instance as "the music I care to hear" or as "the uncreated light". The more he strips himself of his worldliness the more he grows in the experience of God as "the perfect and ultimate pleasure" (Delli-Carpini, 111) and finally, poor enough to offer himself to God, the man can accept the gift of the Lord Himself, the Elected Silence he so wishes to hear. As Delli-Carpini makes clear, for each renounced sense the man acquires such qualities as silence, vision, insight, reverence, awe, and wonder (cf. Delli-Carpini 111), which, marking his progress towards holiness, provide him with the dowry for the Eucharistic feast, with its climax of "unhousing" and "housing" the Lord: opening the "cupboard" with the Host which he then places and closes in the dwelling of his own heart.

Interestingly, the speaker finds himself drawn to the vicinity of the church by the sense of smell, evoked through the mention of the censers sending their relish "along the sanctuary's side". Stressing the importance of the olfactory nature of religious experience, the fragrant smoke of what could be interpreted as a pure offering of man's heart and a declaration of his self-burning, self-effacing love (cf. R. Guardini 54 — 56), appears to be a fitting image of the "kind betrothal" — incidentally the poem's earlier title. His willingness and urgency to make a gift of himself seems to determine an abrupt change of his position with regard to the church. Though at first shown standing somewhere to the side of the building, later, if only in his dreams, he "walks the golden street" (3) which leads straight into the heart of the church. There, privileged to handle the Tabernacle (how prophetic!), which anticipates his future Catholic priesthood, the speaker encounters God and establishes a long-lasting personal and intimately physical relationship with the Divine.

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord." (GMH 32)


Finally, even though we still remain in the sphere of wishful thinking, "Easter" (1866) is that one among Hopkins's juvenile poems which, celebrating a holiday fundamental for establishing the Church, brings a categorical imperative to erect one and furnish it with all that which allows it to be alive and thrive on earth:

( … )
Build the church and deck the shrine
Empty though be it'd on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine-
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn
Know ye not 'tis Easter morn?
( … )

Seek God's House in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be,
Mingle praises, prayer and song
Singing to the Trinity
Henceforth at your soul alway
Make each morn an Easter Day. (GMH 34 - 35)

On "Easter morn", "empty though it'd be on earth", the church more than ever reveals its existence as a holy sign which, invariably pointing beyond itself, directs believers to the realm of Sanctum, where the true House of God can be found. Described as imago mundi, "a sanctified image of the cosmos", the temple, itself "proof against all earthly corruption" (Eliade 59) continually purifies and "re-sanctifies the world because", as Eliade makes clear, "it at once represents and contains it" (59). At the same time, however, marking an intersection between the material and the spiritual, it demarcates a concrete, spatially restricted area in which the Divine makes Himself available for His people; it also shows that, having renounced the elevated vastness of the celestial sphere, He can dwell among and meet them on their lowly ground and in a way on their terms. For this earthly "God's House" not to become a merely decorative façade, however splendid, it must be continually built and sought, must continually partake in the Eucharistic feast commemorating Christ's victory of Love and Life over death and sin. Hence the crucial element of the house interior is "His table", round which all members are to congregate in "happy throng", united not only sacramentally, but also through prayer and adoration of the Trinity. Now is the moment to serve "the choicest wine" saved for this occasion and to make music - rejoicing through harp and horn, tuning in to the different tones and meanings of happiness.

While creating their church "triumphant", worshippers are encouraged to "take the lesson" from the way the world around responds to the Resurrection. By "dealing out that being indoors each one dwells", by "selving" and speaking itself, the church of nature mingles its own praise, prayer and song. The "gladness of the skies", the smile of the world translated into the whole range of colour and fragrance, the joy of flowers opening themselves and looking heavenwards -- all this explosion of spring is like a homage paid to the risen Christ - an act of nature's solidarity in its acknowledgment of the Great Sacrifice as a source of its rebirth and beauty.

It is within this world in bliss that the sacramental church exists, its delight in Easter also expressing itself through various actions oriented towards praising and reverencing God, with singing as its dominant. And as if to ensure that the jubilation would last, another church structure is pointed at, the church within the man's soul, in which, depending on the amount of grace poured, his faith and cooperation with the Holy Spirit, the miracle and mystery of the joy of Easter can take place not just once a year but every single day.

However intricate and complex Hopkins's construction of the church may be, the use of the imperative (build, bring, seek, deck etc.), which relegates the execution of the orders to some unspecified time period, merely emphasizes the absence of the results. Hence, consequently, the church acquires the status of "the uncreated light", a project Hopkins's persona communicates to his fellow believers. This sense of incompletion prevails also in Hopkins's depiction of the church in the poems in which, no longer concerned with articulating dreams, he tries - this time through describing what there is - to reconcile himself with spatial facts. There too the church becomes what in his own words can be characterized as but "a lonely began", invariably some replica of the Halfway-House which he defies.


Trying to distance himself from that which he perceives as morally ambiguous, he assumes the standpoint of an outsider on the lookout for his "heaven-haven" where no half-measures would separate him from the wholeness of Christ as "All in All". Soon the quest will lead him into priesthood and to the experience of the wreck of the Deutschland, where his winged heart will fly to the heart of the Host and where, refashioned by God and having created his true altar, he will find that Communion which he could merely visualize in his juvenile poems.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekklesia , 1 04 2007.

2. "As I have already said", Newman wrote in his Apologia " there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other". History of my Religious Opinions from 1841 to 1845, Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, http://www.island-of-freedom.com/NQUOTES.HTM ; 1104 2007

3. "Golden street" : in the 19th c. London this street was in the vicinity of the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Assumption. According to the trust deed, the chapel was built as a sanctuary, not for the West End of London only, but for the whole Roman Catholic body of England. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=45195#s2 , 14 04 07.


Delli-Carpini, J., (1998). Prayer and Piety in the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Landscape of a Soul. Lewiston : The Edwin Meller Press.

Downes, D.A., (1959). The Ignatian Personality of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York/ Lanham : University Press of America.

Durham, C. J.,"Understanding the Sacred". Retrieved 21 06 2007. http://www.bytrent.demon.co.uk/eliadecom01.html ,

Eliade, M., (1956). The Sacred and The Profane. The Nature of Religion. Trans. from the French by Willard R. Trusk. New York: A Harvest Book/Harcourt Brace and World Inc.

Frank, E.E., (1979). Literary Architecture: Essays Towards a Tradition. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Gardner, W.H., (1948) Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): A Study Of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition , 2 vols., London: Secker and Warburg.

Gardner, W.H., and N.H. MacKenzie (eds.) (1970). The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins . Oxford: Oxford University Press. [in the text abbreviated to GMH].

Guardini, R., (1991). Znaki swiete . Trans. from the German by Józef Birkenmajer. Wroclaw: WydawnictwoWroclawskiej Ksiegarni Archidiecezjalnej.

McNees, E., (1989). Beyond the Half-way House: Hopkins and Real Presence. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31, 85-105.

Newman, H. (1845). Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Retrieved 11 04 2007.
http://www.island-of-freedom.com/NQUOTES.HTM ;.
The New English Bible (1976). Oxford: The Bible Societies in association with Oxford University Press.
http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=45195#s2 . Retrieved 14 04 07.
Toporov, V., (2003). Przestrzen i rzecz . Trans. B. Zylko. Kraków: Universitas
Uspensky, B., (1997). Poetyka kompozycji. Struktura tekstu artystycznego i typologia form kompozycji . Trans. P. Fast. Katowice: Slask.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekklesia . Retrieved 1 04 2007.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekklesia , 1 04 2007.

"As I have already said", Newman wrote in his Apologia " there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other". History of my Religious Opinions from 1841 to 1845, Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, http://www.island-of-freedom.com/NQUOTES.HTM ; 1104 2007.

"Golden street" : in the 19th c. London this street was in the vicinity of the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Assumption. According to the trust deed, the chapel was built as a sanctuary, not for the West End of London only, but for the whole Roman Catholic body of England.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2007

Faather Hopkins SJ on Retreat || Elizabeth Bishop and Hopkins Poetry || Aubrey de Vere and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Patrick Kavanagh and Gerard Manley Hopkins | | Communion of Saints in Hopkins Poetry || Saint Patricks Breastplate || Place of Church in Hopkins Juvenile Poems || Cardinal Newman and GM Hopkins || Hopkins Misdirected Faith || Father Hopkins SJ the Priest ||