Hopkins Lectures 2000

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Czech Environment

Ivana Bozdechova Charles Univesity Prague Czech Republic

Ivana Bozdechova introduces some important facts and names from Czech literary history which are or can be related to Gerard Manley Hopkins either in terms of time co-existence or thematic affinity.

Ivana Bozdechova Charles University, Prague, The Czech Republic

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 -1889), perhaps the most difficult and certainly one of the most original poets of the century, is still waiting for the broader recognition on the soil of Czech literature and culture in a sense that his spiritual message as well as formal (technical) creativity and inventions would become better known and more inspiring. My intent is to introduce some important facts and names from the Czech literary history which are or can be related to Hopkins either in terms of time co-existence or thematic affinity.

Czech Literary Background

Since I cannot really present any firm statements, I will rather contemplate on the "readiness" of Czech audience for Hopkins both in the periods of his lifetime and of his first (English) publications in this century. I will start by the attempt at drawing a picture of "environment" in terms of Czech literary background which then gives me the possibility to illustrate some parallels in depicting "environment" (= Nature) in the poetry by G.M.Hopkins and Czech poets under consideration. And I will conclude by mentioning some facts on Czech translations, publicity and reception of G.M.Hopkins in our country till to day.

A century long tradition of religious poetry in Czech lands

As we know, although G.M.Hopkins wrote a great deal of spiritual-sensual poetry, none of his poems appeared during his lifetime. It was not until thirty years after his death that his extraordinary verse was published (in 1918). A second edition appeared in 1931 and Hopkins was belatedly discovered, being both attacked as an eccentric and hailed as an originator. He cannot be a companion to the ordinary individual, for he shows no appreciation of the struggles of the average man but within the scope of his vision and the range of his genius, he is magnificent. He composed the finest religious poems written since the seventeenth century. Of course, religious literature and namely poetry (both Catholic and Protestant) had a century-long tradition in the Czech lands (starting with the oldest Slavic writings at the end of the 9th century in the Great Moravian Empire and continuing with the Old Czech writings since the 14th century and in the New Czech language since the end of the 18th century on.

Czech, the fifth European vernacular language

The significant fact is that Czech is the fifth European vernacular language after French, Italian, Catalan, and Dutch into which the whole Bible was translated, in about 1370; the first Czech translation of the Bible was printed in 1488). But the generations of Czech poets contemporary with and following Hopkins grew up and drew inspiration mainly from sources different from Catholic. The closest would be the sphere of philosophical and mystical poetry in broader sense. The second half of the 19th century when G.M.Hopkins lived is considered as the period of so-called "May-poets" and "Lumir-poets" in Czech literary history.

Hopkins and Karel Hynek Macha

karel hynek macha

The former group took over its name from title of the masterpiece and the first modern Czech poem written in 1836 by the greatest Czech romantic poet, outstanding spiritual rebel, and father of modern Czech poetry Karel Hynek Macha (1810-36). He played the decisive and most influential role for all generations of Czech poets including our youngest ones. It is fascinating to find out some similarities and interesting parallels even between him and G.M.Hopkins, of course purely accidental.

Hopkins, a non-Romantic or an anti-Romantic

Anti-Romantic Hopkins also cherished regularity in writing which however was not in the conflict with his deliberate vagueness and concept of secret in poetry. They both introduced modern revolution of poetic language in their specific ways and yet they both did not come to the recognition during their lifetimes. To give you an idea of Macha's nature metaphors, let me read a short extract from his May:

It was late eve - the first of May -
Of evening May - the time for love.
To bliss called the voice of turtle-dove.
Where scented pine-groves softly lay.
Of love the moss purled in the gloom,
The flowering tree feigned love's fond woes.
His love the nightingale sang the rose,
While rosebush sighed its soft perfume.
The lake's smooth face in quiet murmur
Told of a dark and secret ache;
The shore in bliss embraced the lake,
czech,hopkins, (First Canto, tr. W. Harkins)

Unlike Romantic Macha, G.M.Hopkins searched for integrity, comfort and mental balance in nature. His attitude toward nature was not that of Romantic exaltation, nor desire to escape to nature. He experienced the essential philosophical amazement at undestructability of existence in nature.

Hopkins and Czech poet, Otokar Brezina (1868 - 1929)

It was late eve - the first of May -
Of evening May - the time for love.
To bliss called the voice of turtle-dove.
Where scented pine-groves softly lay.
Of love the moss purled in the gloom,
The flowering tree feigned love's fond woes.
His love the nightingale sang the rose,
While rosebush sighed its soft perfume.
The lake's smooth face in quiet murmur
Told of a dark and secret ache;
The shore in bliss embraced the lake,
czech,hopkins, (First Canto, tr. W. Harkins) It was late eve - the first of May -
Of evening May - the time for love.
To bliss called the voice of turtle-dove.
Where scented pine-groves softly lay.
Of love the moss purled in the gloom,
The flowering tree feigned love's fond woes.
His love the nightingale sang the rose,
While rosebush sighed its soft perfume.
The lake's smooth face in quiet murmur
Told of a dark and secret ache;
The shore in bliss embraced the lake,
czech,hopkins, (First Canto, tr. W. Harkins)

Some similar attitudes can be found as gradually developed in the poetry of Otokar Brezina who achieved the greatest intellectual and artistic development of any Czech poet. He celebrated a pure, super-personal religious, cosmic and social idea, and ultimately reached a soaring optimism in his striving toward God as the highest reality and certainty. Mystery and transcendence, conceived at first in a Christian sense and later in a spirit of philosophical monism, became the subjects of his mystical works. The mysterious guilt oppresses not only mankind but all of nature and only pain and work become means of redemption from such guilt in Brezina. He used rich metaphors taken from the exact sciences and favoured the wide horizons of open nature. Similarly Hopkins, the lonely master, religious mystic and poet of oxymoronic metaphors, Brezina was for the average readers incomprehensible and therefore gained widespread respect, notably among the younger poets, only after his significance has been brought closer and thoroughly analysed by the leading critics.


Strains of Catholocism after World War 1

After the First World War, definite strains of Catholicism began to appear in his poetry and in that sense, he became the spiritual father of the Czech Catholic writers. It was then that Czech Catholic poets invoked the spiritual authority of Brezina and strengthened their positions alongside with the post-war growth of Catholic political power. Czech Catholicism always had two components, and this duality was clearly evident in literature. One aspect was Gothic, marked by emotional simplicity and a classic monumentality suggestive of Italian and pre-Reformation influence. The other aspect was Baroque, marked by heavy pathos - its Expressionism derives from Spain and from the Counterreformation. The Franciscan type was represented by the poet-priest Jakub Deml (1886-1961), a simple, folk-like singer of tenderness, Nature and love. He cast the bulk of his literary output in the form of a series of diary-like works Slepeje (Footprints, 1917) which included his conversation with Death, Love, and God and a breviary devoted to the praise of field lilies entitled Moji pratele (My Friends, 1914).


Hopkins, Nezval and Jan Zahradniced

As a Catholic priest he spent much time and energy feuding with authority in church, state, and literature. This mystical anarchist, searing critic, and sublime poet was among the most original figures in the history of modern Czech literature. He was regarded by his admirer, the poet Nezval, as the father of Czech surrealism. Unfortunately, there exists as yet no serious evaluation of his work in Czech or in any other language. Belated entrance and recognition seem common to the majority of poets of our interest. It holds true also for Jan Zahradnicek (1905-1960), one of the great Czech poets of Catholic mysticism. His early poems are haunted by visions of death, suffering, and dreams. Later he celebrated the spiritual and life-giving traditions of native land and the saints who guard her from evil. In 1951 he was arrested, and charged with illegal association and treason. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, was released in 1960, and died the same year. He was subsequently officially declared as innocent of all charges. However, his name was meant to be wiped off the history of modern Czech poetry and readers´ minds after 1948 (for political reasons) - since then, for about 40-year period, the only one of his books has been reprinted. He is newly published again in the 1990 s. Zahradnicek liberated himself from pessimistic illusionism by a mystical communion with God, after the manner of the young Brezina, in numerous books of poetry, e.g. Pokuseni smrti (The Temptation of Death, 1930), Jeraby (Cranes, 1933), Z znive leto (The Thirsty Summer, 1935), Pozdraveni slunci (Greetings to the Sun, 1937). In Korouhve (Banners, 1940) he views his sorely tried nation as an object of religious mysticism. We might consider him as one of the rare Czech Catholic poets who might have been familiar with G.M.Hopkins poetry and his work shows some interesting parallels. What was Hopkins´ concept and picture of environment? If he mentioned nature at all, he did so not in an "environmental" or "green" way, but theologically, as God s creation, as a spiritual presence of the deity. Certainly not as something that humans should protect, preserve, but something that they experience as something metaphysical. What is equally important is that he luxuriated in extravagance - to him the world was not only colourful but prodigal, overflowing with a divine largess. He delighted in "couple-coloured" oddities, the rose-moles along the sides of trout, freckles and finches wings, all things contrary, "counter, original, spare, strange," all the entrancing superfluities of creation. Hopkins saw the whole world "barbarous in beauty." Even the inanimate "azurous hung hills" expressed the "brute beauty and valor" of existence and woke "Man's mounting spirit in his bonehouse."

To Hopkins everything was "charged with the grandeur of God." Let s have a look at Zahradnicek: he also often depicted colourful nature in its spring or autumn face while these seasons gave him also a chance to praise the lord (cf. similar motif in Hopkins "Spring and Fall"). resents nature and environment in Hopkins poetry is his "The Windhover" (which belonged at the same time to his most favourite), perhaps the same can be said about Zahradnicek´s "Lark in Clouds" (Hopkins also wrote a few poems about skylark). The above mentioned Hopkins´ extravagance and admiration of natural, wild beauty of the world (such as e.g. in "Pied Beauty" or "Inversnaid") as if resounds in poetry of the contemporary Czech Catholic poet Josef Kostohryz (1907). Originality and uniqueness of Hopkins view and observations is closely connected with his formal (technical) originality and uniqueness. Not only that any imitations of his style must have necessarily be lame. From the formal point of view namely, question of translatability of his poetry also arouses.


Hopkins first of all crowded metaphors with almost more associations than they could bear - but he leaped, with the agility of lightening, from one image to another and the skilful translator should be able to follow him. It is however often difficult to follow the extraordinary rush of his language, in which sounds, sights, textures and ideas seem thrown pell-mell. Then again, there is order in Hopkins´ speed, a definite if seemingly kaleidoscopic design in the swiftness of his "terrible sincerity." The real translation nightmare, of course, is his "sprung rhythm" or experiments with made-up compound words, namely when translating into languages so different to each other as Czech and English are. To illustrate such almost impossible task, we would need hours to describe Hopkins journey into the Czech language but I will conclude paraphrasing confession of his Czech translator: "the deeper and better the translator submerges into his work, the more remorseful is he, getting tempted to start everything all over again and differently. But life is so short..." It is certainly not without interest that G.M.Hopkins had to fight his way to the Czech audience through decades. He could be read and considered in our country namely after the second world war, as contemporary to such Czech poets as V.Nezval, F.Halas or V.Holan.


The first information and comments about Hopkins were written at the beginning of the 1930´s (Aloys Skoumal) and after World War II. The first translations into Czech were done in the 1960´s by Ivan Slavik and Rio Preisner. Due to the fact that Rio Preisner immigrated after 1968 it was not possible to publish these translations in our country at that time. Therefore first edition appeared in 1970 in Rome (Catholic academy press). There was a new attempt to publish part of the whole translation in 1971 but it was banned again. Finally, both versions were put together and published in one book by the highly prestigious Czech publishing house of TORST in 1995. With all the admiration to Hopkins originals and with all the critical eyes of a linguist and translator which I am able of, I would like to take my hat off to both translators and to state proudly enough that the Czech environment suits Hopkins very well. And my wish is that his poetry with all its passionate devoutness, opulent imagination and intensity of exclamations can always address also Czech readers.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2000

St Augustine and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Creativity 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 ||