Hopkins Lectures 2003

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomism of Saint Aquinas

Myron Shibley Franciscan University, Steubenville, USA

Thomas Aquinas affirms that God is everything. Few have expressed this Thomistic conception of creation better in literature than Gerard Manley Hopkins, as in "Pied Beauty"

The Thomistic Method

This is the Thomistic method through and through. Intellectual knowledge for St. Thomas Aquinas is not universal, necessary, or infallible as it is for Descartes and Kant. He never starts with forms or with the mind. Along with Aristotle, he states that nothing comes to the mind that is first not apprehended by the senses, because knowledge of reality, in all its nine accidents, in all its individuality, uniqueness and particularity is primary. Intellectual knowledge is secondary and subsequent to sense-knowledge, and we might add, who appeals to our senses like Gerard Manley Hopkins?

For Aquinas, the Abstract is derived from the Concrete

In a word, the abstract is derived from the concrete, the universal is derived from the singular, the unchanging is derived from the changing. Form is abstracted from matter. Substance is never a composite of two beings, but a unique creation of being derived from two principles of being, matter and form. To put it simply, all the body is in the soul, and all the soul is in the body. Or, in chemical terms, if sodium is absorbed by human beings, they die. If chloride is absorbed into the human body, people die, however sodium chloride, or table salt, as two principles of being can be absorbed into the human system at will without any damage. Therefore, salt is proof positive of substantial change.

For Aquinas, Substance and Accidents Form Nature

In the philosophy of St. Thomas, substance and accidents form nature. And essence, combined with existence forms being. It's that simple. For St. Thomas Aquinas, reality is dualistic, never monistic. In plain English, life for St. Thomas Aquinas is always a two-way street, never a one-way street. We are surrounded by essence and existence, the natural and the supernatural, faith and reason, substance and accidents, matter and form, form and privation, potency and act, the Bible and oral tradition, Jesus and Mary, Adam and Eve, the physical and the metaphysical, order and chance, determinism and indeterminism, mysticism and speculative theology, ugliness and beauty, the material and the immaterial, and above all, God and creation/ This is the world of St. Thomas Aquinas, a world unknown to nineteenth century scholasticism.

Thomistic View of Creation

Now we shall explore the Thomistic view of creation, not the scholastic view of creation. Thomism is not scholasticism, nor ever will be. St. Thomas Aquinas begins every article of his work with a question. He loves the doctrine of Aristotle, that all learning begins with a question. Not so with the scholastics. They give you the answers without ever asking questions. In a word, there is a big difference between indoctrination and education.

Now we shall explore the Thomistic view of creation. God creates the world without intermediaries that He alone governs. He not only gives things their being, but also their order and destiny in a well-ordered cosmos. St. Thomas Aquinas is quite clear on this point. The final cause or end of every being, namely the "why", is the cause of causes. What each being is made of, the cause that projects it into being, the form that it takes, is all subservient to why it is created. Teleology is at the heart of Thomism. In short, nature acts for an end as is also affirmed by the modern day science of ecology. Thomas Aquinas believes that God is love and truth, but God is also order. Sin is disorder that is predicated on hate and the breaking of the divine order. God is the eternal present that creates a marvelous harmony, or if you would, an ontological symphony in which nature acts for an end through an order that is the outcome of the providence or wisdom of God.

For Aquinas, Creation is an ongoing Relationship between God and Creation

Creation, then, is not so much an action that begins and ends; it is an ongoing relationship between God and what He creates. Nature does nothing in vain through its regularity and purposeness. Thomas Aquinas affirms very clearly that creation did not come out nothing. Le Pere Sertillanges put it well. "Creation is never an intermediary; God and the emanation of creation from Him are one as an effect is dependent on its cause. Creation is thus an extension of God, not an event, not an action in time or a coming to be." To put it clearly, any self-sufficiency of created being is a deplorable myth. Creation is all that is sustained in being by God who is pure act, pure existence, with no essence other than His existence. The world is nothing other than God's handiwork continually sustained by divine love."

Does Hopkins Express the Thomistic View of Creation?

In other words, Thomas Aquinas, in the first book of the Summa Theologica, God is never the author of sin, but he is always the author of the act of sin. And again, Thomas Aquinas affirms succinctly, "God is virtually everything," an idea that is capital in Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is our contention that no one has ever better expressed in literature the Thomistic conception of creation than Gerard Manley Hopkins. I cite from the well known poem, "Pied Beauty"

Glory be to God for dappled things;
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoat chestnut falls finches wings;
Lawnscape plotted and pierced-fold fallow, and plough
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things, counter, original, spare and strange
Whatever is fickle, freckled, who knows how
with swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle din
He fathers forth whose beauty is past change.
Praise him

Here we see a striking dualism in which the nature of beings is rendered in all that is unique, particular and individual through the nine accidents of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. Let us remember that there are nine accidents, not two, not three, not four, in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. All multiplicity and diversity are the gift of God in the creation of being, emanating from Himself. The dualism of nature described by Hopkins dazzles us. "

Plotted and pierced; fickle frecked; swift slow; sweet and sour.

The dualism of the cosmos can only find its unity in God, a unity that is based on God's beauty which is past change. God and only God is the source of every creature on Earth. In a word, Hopkins looks deeply into the depths of a world where God dwells. He speaks the language of nature, the land of the imminence of God.

Priests leading us through language to the incarnational Christ

Also both Thomas Aquinas and Gerard Manley Hopkins are priests who want to lead us through the language of nature to the incarnational Christ, one in the Eucharist, the other in the beauty of the cosmos. For Gerard Manley Hopkins, the literary expression of nature becomes the language of religion. The cosmos is a revelation of the supernatural.

Being, Existence is in and of itself a Perfection

Therefore, for both men, God is in the world by his presence, power and majesty. St. Thomas Aquinas affirms the radical metaphysical beauty of all being. In blunt terms, St. Thomas Aquinas says that even the devil is metaphysically beautiful though morally evil, and it is better to exist in hell than not to exist at all because being, existence is in and of itself a perfection. In the tradition of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas affirms that all being is good, true, beautiful and one (the four transcendentals).

The Cosmos, a Mask that Veils . . .

For both men, the cosmos is nothing more than a mask that veils the secret and mysterious reality of God's being and love. Hopkins even finds God in clay and in coal, following the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas that "God is virtually everything." The world for both men is nothing more than an immense zone of divine energy, albeit marred by sin. In the world of Hopkins, nature is "seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil and wears man's smudge and shares man's smell." Nevertheless, "for all this, nature is never spent."

Therefore in both "Pied Beauty" and "God's Grandeur," the theme is the same affirmation of St. Thomas's view of creation. In the words of Landau, "Hopkins creates a powerful form of typological allusion by abstracting the essence- the defining concept, idea, or structure from the scriptural types." Abstracting the essence of being is at the heart of Thomistic epistomology.

In "God's Grandeur," Hopkins uses images that evoke creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, Christ's sufferings on earth, human sinfulness, and the mysterious work of the Spirit of God to give a message of hope that God will have the last laugh, and bring good out of evil in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, who strictly maintains that everything in the world is good or can be changed to good and that only God can bring good out of evil, and evil that is made necessary through the diversity of natures. In the mind of St. Thomas, God would be less perfectly reflected in the world without imperfection because natures are all deficient and fall short of perfection thereby ensuring that they will fail. Evil, therefore, is a condition of the interaction of being which is all in the plan or providence of God who constantly can and does bring good out of evil through His power, mercy, wisdom and goodness. To use a simple example, fertilizer makes the tomato plants grow. God is constantly bringing good out of evil.

The universe as one unique creation must always be ordered to the good of the cosmos taken as a whole. Now we can complete the quotation of Aquinas, "God is never the author of sin, but always the author of the act of sin" because He alone can bring good out of it.

For Hopkins, Nature is never Spent

Also in the words of Hopkins, God in His grandeur, "will flame out, like shining from shook foil" no matter what, no matter who, no matter where. "The ooze of oil-crushed" will conquer no matter what the obstacle. Hopkins is Thomistic as he affirms that the soil may be "bare now" and "nor can foot feel, being shod" but God's grandeur, power and majesty is always there. In the final sestet of the poem, Hopkins is adamant. "Nature is never spent" because the Holy Spirit "over the bend world broods with warm breast and with ah bright wings" and is always there.

With Hopkins as with Aquinas, there is a deep metaphysical message made even more concrete in "Barn Floor and Wine Press" (1865).

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 millstone roof'd His head,
At morn we found the heavenly bread,
and on a thousand altars land
Christ our sacrifice is made

The two men are joined in their love of the Eucharist. In fact, no one ever defended the Holy Eucharist better nor created more hymns to the Holy Eucharist than St. Thomas Aquinas, e.g., "Pange Lingua," etc. Thomas's hymns are used widely at benediction in the catholic church to this day.

Furthermore, both men loved music. In fact, Hopkins actually wrote a dualistic poem, "Henry Purcell," in which he focused on the not-so-simple interaction between the soloist and the chorus. A nice illustration of the one and the many, if you will pardon the philosophical reference.

Before concluding, I should mention the fact that both men suffered intensely in their personal life. St. Thomas Aquinas was a compulsive over-eater who was not just fat but morbidly obese and physically grotesque. He was also a workaholic who was deeply wounded by the hatred of his family and parents who put him in prison for a year in a futile attempt to stop him from becoming a Dominican priest. He often cried in front of the Eucharist and also maintained in his writings of the first part of the Summa Theologica that "woundedness" is the core of the human personality.Much has been made out of the suffering of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It has been stated that he was a homosexual because of his description of the human male face more than twenty times. He is also considered to be a manic depressive by some critics because of his highs and lows. It seems that Mary's dog eats, Mary eats, therefore Mary is her dog. Manic depressives suffer, Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered, therefore Gerard Manley Hopkins should be a manic depressive.

Somehow this logic escapes me.

Was Gerard Manley Hopkins a manic depressive? see Clinical Analysis of Hopkins

Let us proceed in Thomistic fashion in exploring the suffering of Gerard Manley Hopkins from what we know to what we don't know. Here are the facts. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Catholic priest. What was a Catholic priest in nineteenth century England? Was he popular? Did he fit into the culture of his time? Did Gerard Manley Hopkins join the catholic priesthood because he had an identity crisis? Was Gerard Manley Hopkins abused and abandoned by his family? Did Gerard Manley Hopkins feel he had to escape from his family, or like John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, was he on a mission from God? What was his motivation as a catholic Jesuit priest in the nineteenth century? The only answer is that he wanted to save souls, pure and simple. And as one Catholic priest in Cleveland told me, "If only we could convince people that God loves them and cares for them, we could fill the churches."

Hopkins gives the World an appreciation of the Beauty of the World

Now what is the proof of love in the mind of any person? The answer again is quite simple: gifts of beauty and goodness. And what was the gift of Gerard Manley Hopkins to the world? Again the answer is obvious. Through sound and sight he gives the reader a deep appreciation of the tangible beauty and goodness of the world by massive use of assonance, alliteration, verbs becoming nouns, nouns becoming verbs, adjectives becoming verbs, and a structured hurricane of metaphysical musicality.

Hopkins Suffered Deeply because he Loved Deeply

Was there any poet in nineteenth century England who could rival the artistic style of Gerard Manley Hopkins? I think not. At least, I don't know of any. Could it be that the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a disciple of John Henry Cardinal Neumann, was a catholic apologist who worked tirelessly in his poems like St. Thomas Aquinas to lead us from what we know to what we don't know, from the nature of the cosmos to our relationship with the Creator? In a word, Hopkins as every priest, wanted to bring people to Christ and he used nature to do it, while suffering in the process. For Hopkins as for St. John of the Cross, to flee from the cross is to flee from Christ. To flee from Christ is to flee from love. And to flee from love is to flee from life. Put simply, Hopkins suffered deeply because he loved deeply. The music of the mind intoxicated with the beauty of God as emanating in the cosmos around us is the core of Hopkin's poetry. However, Hopkins loved life and in a certain sense to live well is to suffer much.


In conclusion, St. Thomas Aquinas believed in multiplicity between species and multiplicity within species based on the nine accidents: quality (color, figure and shape), quantity, relation, action, passion, time, place, posture, habitus (apparel, costume, physical equipment). Hopkins certainly does not deny this. Put simply, Hopkins as a priest wanted to take us to God if we want to go. He will use nature in all its multiplicity to do it as St. Thomas Aquinas. What is our proof? "Natura," the noun, is mentioned 4800 times alone in the Summa Theologica, and the adjective "Naturalis" is even mentioned more. So states Umberto Eco in his work, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas.

It is my contention that St. Thomas Aquinas has been misrepresented by his followers, and the real Thomas Aquinas is the philosophical basis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. For certain interpreters of Darwin, creation should take us away from God. Hopkins and St. Thomas Aquinas use creation to bring us closer to God. It is easy to believe that Hopkins was a priest and an apologist who would fight to the death to bring people to God. Mariaconcetta Constantini has already outlined this conflict between Darwin and Hopkins at great length in her article "Hopkins and the Scientific Dilemma." It seems clear to us that Hopkins was a philosopher who wrote poetry and that Thomas Aquinas was a poet who wrote philosophy. Both had the same message.

The Gerard Manley Hopkins web - home page
Saint Augustine and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hopkssn and Contemplation
Saint Gertrude and Gerard Manley Hopkins