Hopkins Lectures 2000















































































saint augustineGerard Manley Hopkins and Saint Augustine

James Finn Cotter Mount St. Mary College, US

Saint Augustine's Life was one of the poet's favorite books, seen as a testimony to God's intervention in his life, an admission of his own sin and misdirection, and a hymn of praise to God's power and majesty in dealing with the human race.

In an earlier essay, "Augustine's Confessions and The Wreck of the Deutschland," I traced the influence of The Confessions on Hopkins's ode, from the explicit reference to Augustine's conversion: "Or as Austin, a lingering-out sweet skill" (101, l. 78) to the deliberate echo in the lines: "Thou heardst me, truer than tongue, confess / Thy terror, O Christ, O God" (ll. 11-12).(1) The autobiography of the Bishop of Hippo, one of the poet's favorite books, was intended as a testimony to God's intervention in his life, an admission of his own sin and misdirection, and a hymn of praise to God's power and majesty in dealing with the human race. All these themes, as well as the imagery of storms and shipwreck, darkness and daybreak, altar, walls, tongue, winged heart, and the crucified and risen Christ, unite the two works in the scriptural and poetic traditions of Christian witness.

Augustine's Influence on some of Hopkins's Central Ideas

In this essay I wish to expand the topic to discuss Augustine's influence on some of Hopkins's central ideas: the Great Sacrifice, the Incarnation, the blessings of creation, the experience of beauty, and the notion of inscape as a Christic and Trinitarian act of perception. I shall point out direct and possible sources, as well as analogues between Augustine's other works, beyond The Confessions, and Hopkins' writings, as part of the Christian spiritual-theological heritage. As the poet-priest testifies in The Deutschland on his encounters with his risen King: "For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand" (101, l. 40), he, like Augustine, devoted his life to discovering how Jesus of Nazareth had become the cosmic Lord of history and creation. "From the creation of the world," St. Paul says of God's presence in the world now revealed in Christ, "His invisible qualities, such as His eternal power and divine nature, have been made visible and have been understood through His handiwork" (Romans 1.20). The God of yesterday is now the Lord of today; Yahweh is made present in Jesus. From Paul to Augustine to Hopkins, the "Creator and Lord" of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises is "the same, yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13.8).

Hopkins became immersed in the Writings of the Church Fathers while still at Oxford

Among his annotations on a Bible which he received in the fall of 1865, (now in the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College), Hopkins makes his earliest reference to an Augustinian work.( 2) At Oxford, a year before his conversion, he was already immersed in the Tractarian interest in the writings of the church fathers. On the verse from John 5.17: "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work," Hopkins writes: "[Jesus] defends the work done on the Sabbath day. After the seventh day of creation God never ceases to work. Saint Augustine quotes the Jews, as wiser than the Arians" (p. 94). The reference is to a homily of Saint Augustine on the Gospel of Saint John. On this verse ("My Father worketh and I work"), Augustine writes: "Behold, the Jews understand what the Arians do not understand. The Arians, in fact, say that the Son is not equal with the Father.... [The Jews] did nevertheless understand that in these words such a Son of God was intimated to them as should be equal with God" (XVII, 16).(3)

Augustine then goes on in this passage to explain what "equal with God" means: "Was He not therefore equal with God? He did not make Himself equal, but the Father begat Him equal. Were He to make Himself equal, He would fall by robbery (per rapinam)." He likens such a "usurpation" to the pride of the fallen angels, and continues:

Christ, however, was begotten equal to the Father, not made; begotten of the substance of the Father. Whence the apostle thus declares Him: "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God." What means, "thought it not robbery"? He usurped not equality with God, but was in that equality in which He was begotten. And how were we to come to the equal God? "He emptied Himself, taking upon Him the form of a servant (semitipsum exinanivit formam servi accipiens)." But He emptied Himself not by losing what He was, but by taking to Him what He was not. (XVII, 16, p. 116)

Augustine, Hopkins and Christ's Act of Self-Sacrifice

Augustine quotes the passage from Philippians 2.6-8, the basis for Hopkins' belief in the Great Sacrifice, which, years later in 1883, he paraphrased for his friend Robert Bridges: Christ "thought it nevertheless no snatching-matter for him to be equal with God, but annihilated himself, taking the form of a servant."(4) In a follow-up letter, he told Bridges that his explication "in reality adds force to St. Austin's interpretation, which otherwise I was following" (p. 175). For Hopkins, as for Augustine, Christ's act of self-sacrifice is the gift of himself to the world in creation and atonement.

Reading the opening pages of Augustine's commentary on John, young Hopkins would have discovered an imaginative doctrinal presentation that would influence his own thinking and writing on the Incarnation as a student at Oxford and, later, as a Jesuit priest.

O the mind, mind has mountains

For example, the church father first compares John to a mountain from which we glimpse the whole landscape and seascape of revelation. John and the other prophets point the way to God: "This they were able to do, the great minds of the mountains, who have been called mountains, whom the light of divine justice pre-eminently illuminates" (II, 3, p. 14). "O the mind, mind has mountains," the poet exclaimed in his 1885 (?) Dublin sonnet, "No worst, there is none" (157, l. 9). No visionary, he could only gape at these "no-man-fathomed" mountains and crouch in his darkness. He experienced the cost of sacrifice himself and felt emptied out in his isolation.

Augustine next explicates the text: "He was in the world, and the world was made by Him" (John 1.10), explaining that the Word made flesh was in the world as "an Artificer governing what He has made." He continues: "God, infused into the world, fashions it; being everywhere present He fashions, and withdraweth not Himself elsewhere, nor doth He, as it were, handle from without, the matter which He fashions. By the presence of His majesty He maketh what He maketh; His presence governs what He made" (II, 10, pp. 16-17). This physical immanence of Christ in space and time is an essential part of Hopkins' faith, expressed at the time of his conversion and throughout his life. In The Deutschland (1875-76), Christ is the "Ground of being and granite of it: past all / Grasp God " (101, ll. 254-255). In his last retreat notes of 1889, he writes: "All that happens in Christendom and so in the whole world affected, marked, as a great seal, and like any other historical event, and in fact more than any other event, by the Incarnation; at any rate by Christ's life and death, whom we by faith hold to be God made Man." (5)

"Christ is in every sense God and in every sense man," Hopkins wrote Bridges in 1883, "and the interest is in the locked and inseparable combination, or rather it is in the person in whom the combination has its place." The events of Christ's life are called mysteries, "the mysteries being always the same, that the child in the manger is God, the culprit on the gallows God, and so on" (p. 188). Augustine often returns to the same paradoxes; one famous passage from a Christmas sermon is typical:

Man's Maker was made man, that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother's breasts; that the Bread might be hungry, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired from the journey; that the Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge, Justice be sentenced by the unjust, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Vine be crowned with thorns, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might be weak, that He who makes well might be wounded, that Life might die. (6)

The incarnational theme of "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe," for example, echoes the Augustinian imagery in "God's infinity / Dwindled to infancy" that "Men here may draw like breath / More Christ and baffle death" (151, ll. 18-19, 66-67). Years earlier in 1866, before his conversion to Roman Catholicism, Hopkins wrote to his friend E. H. Coleridge of the mystery Augustine so eloquently described:

It is one adorable point of the incredible condescension of the Incarnation (the greatness of which no saint can have ever hoped to realise) that our Lord submitted not only to the pains of life, the fasting, scourging, crucifixion etc. or the insults, as the mocking, blindfolding, spitting etc, but also to the mean and trivial accidents of humanity. It leads one naturally to rhetorical antithesis to think for instance that after making the world He shd. consent to be taught carpentering, and, being the eternal Reason, to be catechised in the theology of the
Rabbins (7 )

In The City of God, Augustine sees the Incarnation as the central event of history. God lavishes his blessings on the human race: our existence, lives, vision of the sky and earth, our intelligence and reason which enable us to seek him who made all these things are his gifts. More than that, when we were overwhelmed by sin, turned from contemplation of his light and blinded by love of darkness, "He sent to us His own Word, who is His only Son, that by His birth and suffering for us in the flesh, which He assumed, we might know how much God valued man, and that by that unique sacrifice we might be purified from all our sins, and that, love being shed in our hearts by His Spirit, we might ... come into eternal rest" (VII, 31). (8)

Augustine marvel at the wonders of the soul

In the final book of The City of God, Augustine sums up the blessings God pours out on the human race, from its propagation by the command: "Increase and multiply, and replenish the earth" (Genesis 1.28) to the corporeal beauty of the body in its outward appearance and its inward harmony. Augustine asks his readers to marvel at the wonders of the soul with its ability to know and to seek for wisdom, its love of virtues "which teach us how we may spend our life well, and attain to eternal happiness," and its artistic genius: "What wonderful-one might say stupefying-advances has human industry made in the arts of weaving and building, of agriculture and navigation! With what endless variety are designs in pottery, painting, and sculpture produced, and with what skills executed!" (XXII, 24, p. 852). Creation too brings blessings in abundance with all its beauty and usefulness: "Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of sky, and earth, and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of the light; of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume of flowers; of the multitude of birds, all differing in plumage and in song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest in size are often the most wonderful-the works of ants and bees astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales?" (XXII, 24, p. 854).

"Glory be to God for dappled things" Hopkins exclaims in his curtail sonnet "Pied Beauty." After describing "skies of couple-colour," stippled trout, chestnuts, and finches' wings, he pictures "Landscape plotted and pieced" and "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim." The poet then generalizes his theme:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him (121, ll. 7-11)

Augustinian Echoes in Hopkins Sonnet

The sonnet's development is pure Augustinianism. Beginning with an ejaculation of praise, it moves from particular creatures to a scenic overview and then to the arts of agriculture and the trades. The study in contrasts and in verbal antitheses is a favorite trope of Augustine who observes in The City of God: "As, then, these oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries, arranged, as it were, by an eloquence not of words, but of things"(XI, 18, p. 362). The Father creates this variety through his Son who gives design and order to the whole. Robert Frost in a letter to his daughter Lesley missed the point when he wrote of Hopkins: " His poem about All Pied Things good as it is disappoints me by not keeping, short as it is, wholly to pied things."(9) Hopkins had no intention of limiting his focus, but manages to capsulize Augustine's climactic vision of God's blessings in a short space.

For the poet, Augustine's "opposition of contraries" is central to his idea of beauty. For Hopkins, beauty lies in the tension of opposites; at its heart is antithesis in language as in reality. In his 1865 Oxford essay, "The Origin of our Moral Ideas," he gives an important definition: "Beauty lies in the relation of the parts of a sensuous thing to each other, that is in a certain relation, it being absolute at one point and comparative in those nearing it or falling from it."(10)In a dialogue written that same year, "On the Origin of Beauty," Hopkins draws a similar conclusion: "'Then the beauty of the oak and the chestnut-fan and the sky is a mixture of likeness and difference or agreement and disagreement or consistency and variety or symmetry and change'" (p. 90). Beauty involves a balance and blending of the absolute and relative, of regularity and irregularity, of spirit and structure. In tree or sonnet, its unity consists of a hierarchy of parts to parts and parts to the whole, building to a "higher whole" to create the impression of the beautiful and to lead to its contemplation. In a world of change, words and things aspire to the Word "whose beauty is past change."

In The City of God, Augustine concludes his summary of the beauty of natural wonders with a description dear to the Victorian poet, that of the sea: "Shall I speak of the sea, which itself is so grand a spectacle, when it arrays itself as it were in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green, and again becoming purple or blue" (XX, 24, p. 854). Augustine then switches his viewpoint: "Is it not delightful to look at it in storm, and experience the soothing complacency which it inspires, by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked?" The church father here alludes to the celebrated passage that opens Book 2 of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura:

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis,
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucanda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suave est. (2, ll. 1-4)11

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis,
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucanda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suave est. (2, ll. 1-4)11

The poet Rolfe Humphries translates the passage:

How sweet it is, when whirlwinds roil great ocean,
To watch, from land, the danger of another,
Not that to see some other person suffer
Brings great enjoyment, but the sweetness lies
In watching evils you yourself are free from.(12)

Hopkins, who quotes lines from De Rerum Natura in his journal notes (p. 44), certainly had this classic commonplace in mind when he wrote in The Wreck of the Deutschland:

Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales. (101, ll. 185-188)

Of course, both Augustine and Hopkins employ the topos with a different emphasis from the Epicurean complacency of Lucretius. For them, the beauty and power of the storm inspire wonder at the Word's presence in his creation; nevertheless, the contrast between the poet's state of rest and the suffering souls in the shipwreck vividly recalls this famous passage on the real force of nature. His consolation is to know that death has lost its sting, unlike Lucretius whose preoccupation with death in Book 3, and people's inability to deal with it, is echoed in stanza 11 of Hopkins' ode:

"But we dream we are rooted in earth — Dust!" (101, l. 85).

Beauty so Ancient and so New

For Augustine the "Beauty so ancient and so new," which in The Confessions he came to love late and after "a lingering-out" struggle, transcends nature and yet remains immanent to it. In the commentary on the opening of St. John's Gospel, he writes: "If, then, on account of some great building a human design receives praise, do you wish to see what a design of God (consilium Dei) is the Lord Jesus Christ, that is, the Word of God? Mark this fabric of the world. View what was made by the Word, and then thou wilt understand what is the nature of the world" (I, 9, p. 10). His command to mark (adtende) and look at (vide) "the beauty of the heavens" is echoed in Hopkins' sonnet "The Starlight Night" (112): "Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!" "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" (111) through his Son and Spirit. In "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo," the poet finds this beauty in present everyday objects. In an 1882 letter to Bridges he defends the poem, explaining that "the thought is of beauty as of something that can be physically kept and lost and by physical things only, like keys" (p. 161). How to keep physical beauty "from vanishing away," the poet asks. His response is childlike and direct: he has found the key: "Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God beauty's self and beauty's giver" (148, l. 35).

Beauty is the design of the Word stamped into his material creation

Augustine continues his homily on the Gospel of St. John:

So, dearly beloved brethren, because the Wisdom of God, by which all things have been made, contains everything according to design (secundum artem) before it is made; therefore those things which are made through the design itself are not forthwith life, but whatever has been made is life in Him. You see the earth, there is an earth in design (in arte); you see the sky, there is a sky in design; you see the sun and the moon, these also exist in design; but externally they are bodies, in design they are life. (I, 17, p. 12)

"Personally wisdom is Christ our Lord" Hopkins reflects in his meditation notes (Sermons, p.257). The Word Incarnate is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14.6). He is the original artisan whose idea and art gives existence to what He makes. His design in creation is Himself, his sacramental presence waiting to reveal Himself to the beholder who is eager "[d]own all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour":

These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.
("Hurrahing in Harvest," 124, ll. 6, 11-14)

Ipse fecit me!

For Hopkins, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder: it is also in what and Who are beheld. In Wales, on August 17, 1874, he recorded one such encounter with Christ in the universe: "As we drove home the stars came out thick: I leant back to look at them and my heart opening more than usual praised our Lord to and in whom all that beauty comes home" (Journals, p. 254).
In his notes on the Spiritual Exercises, Hopkins observes: "God's utterance of himself in himself is God the Word, outside himself is this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God" (Sermons, p. 129). In The Deutschland, he repeats the thought: "Wording it how but by him that present and past, / Heaven and earth are word of, worded by? (101, ll. 229-230). Creation is a great book, according to Augustine, and creatures are the text in which we read the Word of God. They are visual letters that spell out his presence; they also appeal to our hearing by crying out "Ipse fecit me!" Augustine sums up his teaching in a sermon on Psalm 26:

Let your mind roam through the whole creation; everywhere the created world will cry out to you: "God made me." Whatever pleases you in a work of art brings to your mind the artist who wrought it; much more, when you survey the universe, does the consideration of it evoke praise for its Maker. You look on the heavens; they are God's great work. You behold the earth; God made its number of seeds, its varieties of plants, its multitude of animals. Go round the heavens again and back to the earth, leave out nothing: on all sides everything cries out to you of its Author; nay, the very forms of created things are as it were the voices with which they praise their Creator. 13

Hopkins's sonnet "As kingfishers catch fire" makes the same point: each mortal thing in crying out "myself" declares "God made me!" On the level of grace, the just man fully expresses what the natural world partially embodies, for he "Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is-Christ" (115, l. 11). They just watch birds and dragonflies and hear the stones ring out their Creator-Lord.

For Hopkins, the process by which one discovers the design and pattern that is Christ in the world and in one's self is called "inscape." For him, "beauty [is] the virtue of inscape and not inscape only" (Journals, p. 289). Beauty is the "success and excellence"of inscape, the end toward which it aims, "the achieve of, the mastery of the thing" (120, l. 8). We can shed light on his coinage by tracing Augustine's dialectic of beauty as summed up in his treatise De vera religione (The True Religion). The method is Platonic, moving from sensible data to immutable forms, a method that Hopkins at Oxford would know thoroughly and often examine in his writings, as, for example, in his college essay, "The Position of Plato to the Greek World," and employ in his own "Platonic Dialogue," "On the Origin of Beauty." We must try to attain, Augustine urges, "to the vision of the immutable pattern of things, to the beauty which is always constant with itself and everywhere the same, beauty never distorted by changes of place or time, but standing out one and the same under all circumstances, the beauty whose very existence men discredit, but which in fact has the most true, the highest form of existence.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2000

St Augustine and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Creativity and Childbearing in Hopkins World || Czech Perspective on Hopkins Poetry || Eugenio Montale and Hopkins Poetry || German Perspective on Hopkins Poetry || Heraclitus and Hopkins ||
GM Hopkins in Kildare
|| Hopkins and the Resurrection || Spansih Perspective on Hopkins Poetry ||