Hopkins Lectures 2007

Gerard Manley Hopkins's Misdirected Faith

David B. Axelrod Poet and Writer, New York

(A self-proclaimed non-believer David Axelrod, sees Gerard Manley Hopkins's religious obsession as responsible for the suppression of a great poetic talent and a cause for his early death.)  


Viewed from the perspective of a non-believer, Gerard Manley Hopkins's unfortunate religious obsession seems responsible for the suppression of one of literary history's great poetic talents and as likely for his early death. That Hopkins is best known and most frequently anthologized for religious poems like "Pied Beauty," is an unfortunate irony, for it is as likely that his true religion and greatest gift - poetry itself - was seriously damaged and at times completely suppressed by his misdirected zeal for God. 

Hopkins, himself, gives ample credence to this view when he tells his sister, Grace, that "I destroyed the verse I had written when I entered the [Jesuit] Society and meant to write no more" (Phillips 249). Worse, he says, "a very spiritual man once told me that . . . the best sacrifice was not to destroy one's work but to leave it entirely to be disposed of by obedience" (249). One can only speculate whether that "spiritual man," was a Jesuit mentor, who, seeing Hopkins was devoted to poetry, imposed a harsh discipline upon him to rid him of that passion.

This becomes all the more tragic when Hopkins says "There is more peace and it is the holier lot to be unknown than to be known" (249) and that for Jesuits, "brilliance doesn't suit us" (251). The adherence to this view creates a conflict for Hopkins as he states "nature has two different, two opposite aspects, teaching opposite lessons of life" (236). In keeping with this dichotomy, he distinguished between "inscape" and "outscape." Though some try to define "inscape" largely as a religious matter, it works as well to consider it a reflection of Hopkins's inner, truer feelings. His poetry and his love of nature are the true "inscape." The "outscape" then, would be all that he assigned himself as his religious obligations. His outscape, quite literally, would be the way he clothed himself as a priest, even as he wrote like a pantheist and a free spirit.

Further, Hopkins spent endless hours sermonizing in what, to those outside the faith, can only seem like cult behavior. Had he applied that same time and talent to his greatest gift-poetry-we can only assume he would have propelled himself to ever greater creation, invention and likely fame. After all, he measured each place he visited or lived as happy or unhappy according to whether it was "Museless" (244). A happy life, he believed, was one that gave rise to poetry! Faith, religion are not how happiness is measured. His joy was poetry. (As a side note, for Beatles fans, he referred to Liverpool as among the museless places!)

In his journals and letters, his explanation of his own poems and poetics further support the view that his "better nature" was in his poetry, more than his proclaimed faith. He explains his use of sprung rhythms as "the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced naturalness of expression." In his poetics, for all his mastery of form, Hopkins wants to move away from dogma, even saying of Milton, he "keeps up a fiction of strict form even as he tries to spring free" (228).

Hopkins discusses beauty as "that which is seen in the mind." Commenting on Tennyson, Hopkins said "his gift of utterance is truly golden. . . but wanting in nobility," while "in Burns there is . . . a richness and beauty . . . which lends worth to his smallest fragments" (240-241). From this we may discern that Hopkins's own standard of beauty and the worth of a soul was measured in the worthiness of verse, just as the "most strictly beautiful lines [of Burns, that Hopkins remembers] are those drawn from and describing nature" (241). Here is the true Hopkins proclaiming himself a naturalist poet, free of conventional dogma and rules.

More striking still, was his love of America's Walt Whitman, of whom he says "I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living" (256). He says he strives, in his own poems, to what he characterizes as Whitman's "savagery of his art" and gives his own example of such emotions in his poem "Binsey Poplars":

My aspens, dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled [sic]
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank. (142)

What energetic language, what raw emotion directed at the trees' cutting. What music in the words, and unembarrassed transference of emotion between man and nature. Hopkins tells us "a perfect style must be of its age" (253) and so he rejects the archaic and overly-formal and sides with Whitman and the language of the people.

Compare his duty-ditties for God to his passionate observation of human nature and nature more broadly, and Hopkins becomes the poster-boy for a person in need of deprogramming. Only those blinded by a similar religious indoctrination would say his sacrificing a position of wealth and position in society, for a post as a priest and teacher, was a good decision. His retreat, in his later life, to the solitude and natural beauty of Monasterevin, is testimony to his need to let his real faith-in poetry-flourish. How much longer he might have lived and created if he had lived the privileged life he was born to, we can't know but as likely, he would have lived much longer as a comfortable and famous poet.

One need not be an atheist to espouse this view. In fact, an understanding if not a belief in a broader, universal energy or spirit, makes the case ever more strongly that Hopkins really believed most and would have served a high purpose more steadfastly in his true religion-poetry. The structure he chose, which acknowledges the Holy Spirit, could as easily have been a more pantheistic view. It's said he came as close to pantheism as a Jesuit could.

Devotion to nature aside, it was poetry itself that he constantly, and clearly loved most. He made lists of what to give up for lent, but he made poems of what he knew best-the teeming natural settings he frequently visited. A trip to a new location might require his visiting a church but his journals, letters, finest creations were the notes he took observing the landscape, the clouds in a valley, the predominance of oaks and birch. 

For those who have ever slept through a sermon, it would have been a great relief, or more likely a stimulating experience to have, instead, heard Hopkins's poems read aloud or discussed. In the service and sometimes the defense of his true religion-poetry-Hopkins wrote extensively on prosody, explaining his metrics, his invention of new words and uses of language, his belief that poetry, to rise to its highest level, "should affect the language of common speech" (256). His reiteration of religious canon is boring. His poetics are new, fresh, important. 

In a letter to Bridges, his friend, fellow poet and editor, that Hopkins wrote not long before he died, Hopkins may as well be Whitman, famous for his saying: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself." Hopkins proclaims "To produce is then of little use unless what we produce is known . . . widely known" (256). For all his attempts to subjugate his poetic talents for the sake of his Jesuit duties, he returns to his real passion. He roots for "Victory," to be "an unfading bay tree." He reconciles his having a "Hyde"-as in Jekyll and Hyde- (265) and it is his truer nature that he wishes to be his legacy, telling us all to "Let your light shine before man" (265). For Hopkins, that light was clearest and purest not so much in his obedience to religious doctrine as in his poetry.

Nota Bene

If you pay a Ph.D. enough, he will turn his expertise to any specific purpose. There is ample evidence in how tobacco companies can still drag out experts, even doctors to tell you that smoking not only doesn't harm your health, it's good for you. Thus, what some call research others see as simply rationalizing. Those who believe as Hopkins did, that service of God should trump even a great talent, go on writing about the great religious poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Those who hold a different bias see his work quite differently. Equally, if not more firmly and emphatically, the case can be made that, but for his indoctrination into an overbearing society, he was one of the English language's greatest practitioners-indeed innovators -of poetry.

Sources Consulted

All page numbers and quotes refer to Oxford World's Classics edition:

Phillips, Catherine, editor. Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002.

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 ||