Hopkins Lectures 2013

Love in Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Duc Dau
ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow in English and Cultural Studies University of Western Australia.

In Hopkins’s surviving sermons, the word ‘love’ appears 125 times.1 Of course, this statistic doesn’t include variations such as ‘loved’, ‘loveable’, ‘lover’, ‘loving’, etc. – just the word ‘love’. It’s for this and other reasons that I have long been interested in Hopkins’s views and experiences of love. I am especially interested in the love that he actively cultivated, celebrated and felt was requited, which is his love for Christ. I came to the conclusion that Hopkins’s conversion was one of his most romantic acts. I believe that understanding the significance of love in Hopkins’s writings – in his poems, sermons, spiritual writings, diaries, essays, and letters – will help us to come to a fuller understanding of both his poetry and his relationship with Christ, who is, in his own words, ‘the one with whom I am in love’ (Bridges, 66). Hopkins’s decision to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1866 (Journals, 146) was arguably momentous, proving fundamental to his subsequent theology, poetry and relationship with God. Shortly after his conversion, he told his mother that the Catholic Church ‘only wants to be known in order to be loved’ (Further Letters, 93)2 . In a letter to his friend E. H. Coleridge, he declared that transubstantiation, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is that what makes Catholicism ‘loveable’ (17) 3 .Later, he would write that the exiled Catholic nuns who drowned aboard the wrecked ocean liner, the Deutschland, were ‘Loathed for a love men knew in them’ (‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, stanza 21). It is obvious, then, that Hopkins’s conversion was an experience of newfound love. His leap of faith was, above all, a leap of love. After all, one cannot half believe in God. As David M. Carr argues, ‘Both sexuality and spirituality require an openness to being deeply affected by someone outside oneself, whether one’s lover or God. Both involve the whole self’ 4 . Religious belief entails an openness to something beyond oneself; it requires an immersion into the unknown and commitment. Only then can faith be experienced in its completeness. The same could be said of love. Hopkins’s conversion, made in defiance of parental and societal expectations, was — and I repeat — one of his most romantic acts. I’ll come back to, and flesh out, the conversion experience closer to the end of my lecture. I have been discussing the importance of love in Hopkins’s writings. But what do I mean by ‘love’? The love I focus on is what for Hopkins surpasses even the greatest of filial affections. In Greek it is called eros, in Latin amor. Hence, rather than looking to the love most associated with Christianity, which is agape (in the Greek) or caritas (in the Latin), I concentrate on eros and amor. Not that the two loves are incompatible. Unlike Anders Nygren in his well-known study, Agape and Eros, I do not draw a sharp distinction between the two terms; the difference between them is not one of kind but of degree 5 . In one of his sermons, Hopkins paraphrases from Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, when he uses the word amator (lover), which is a variation on amor (Sermons, 20) 6 . The phrase, from Thomas à Kempis’s chapter ‘On the Proof of a True Lover’, is written from the point of view of Christ, who declares, ‘A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover, as the love of the giver … A noble lover is not content with a gift, but desires Myself above all gifts’ 7 . In other words, the amator values love and desires Christ above all others.

The language of eros or amor has existed throughout centuries of Christian discourse, from the Neo-Platonic-infused writings of Origen and Augustine onwards. Christian writers, particularly those of a mystical bent, did not shy away from drawing on the words to signal their desire for God. St Bernard of Clairvaux, the medieval abbot, uses the word unreservedly in his seminal collection of sermons, On the Song of Songs (a text with which Hopkins was familiar). Bernard proclaims in one of these sermons,
I love because I love: I love that I may love… Love is the only one of the motions of the soul, of its senses and affections, in which the creature can respond to its Creator, even if not as an equal, and repay his favor in some similar way 8 .
The word translated as ‘love’ is amor, while ‘I love’ is amo. Bernard argues that amor is a

person’s most fitting response to God. Only human amor can, to the highest degree of satisfaction, respond to divine Amor.
As Bernard says,
‘the love of a bridegroom – or rather of the Bridegroom who is love – asks only the exchange of love and trust. Let the Beloved love in return. How can the bride – and the bride of Love – do other than love? How can Love not be loved?’9

The Song of Songs, an erotic book in the Bible, is commonly regarded as depicting the marriage of God with either Israel or the Church. From another viewpoint, it appears to align the spiritual quest with human erotic experience. Its two protagonists delight in one another; they long to be together; and search for each other when they are apart. Unlike the forbidden fruit of Eden, the sweet fruit of the Song of Songs is what reunites us with God. In her discussion of the Song of Songs and Jewish mysticism, Sara Srivi makes the following assertion: This ‘reaching out [for one another]’ which lies at the root of our instinctive erotic experiences, and of which the Song of Songs gives such a poignant, heartfelt expression, also lies at the very roots of our spiritual quest. And this word ‘one’ expresses their union. We again encounter word ‘one’ in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. In stanza 26, the speaker refers to Christ as ‘the ónly one’. This expression not only foreshadows Hopkins’s declaration to his friend Robert Bridges that Christ is ‘the only person that I am in love with’ (Bridges, 66), it also recalls a phrase from the Song of Songs which describes the singularity and distinction of the bride in the eyes of her beloved: ‘My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her’ 12 . The ‘undefiled’ bride is not merely ‘the only one’ of her mother but also of the groom. Indeed, he addresses her as ‘thou fairest among women’13 and describes her as ‘the lily among thorns’,14 phrases that set her apart from all others. In like manner, Hopkins was a firm believer in his marriage to Christ, ‘the ónly one’. I turn now to mutual love and its relation to reciprocal touch. In 1868, Hopkins entered the Society of Jesus, which was founded, as you know, by St Ignatius of Loyola. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius argues that love (amor) is given ‘in mutual interchange’. He says:

In the first place two things are to be noted here. The first is that love ought to show itself in deeds more than in words. The second, that love consists in mutual interchange on either side, that is, in the lover giving and communicating to the beloved that which he has, or of that which he has or can give, and so in turn the beloved to the lover. So that if one has knowledge he gives it to him who has it not, and likewise if he has honours or riches; and the other in turn does the same (Sermons, 192–3).15

What Ignatius is arguing here is that love hinges on a process of mutual giving. In his interpretation of this text, Hopkins says, ‘all God gives us or does for us He gives and does in love and therefore that all we do towards God we should do in love’ (194).16 Hopkins believes that this kind of exchange governs our ideal relationships with others. Take, for example, ‘Felix Randal’, a poem about a priest and a dying parishioner:

This séeing the síck endéars them tó us, us tóo it endéars.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Félix, poor Felix Randal (lines 9–11).

Touch is an act that I perform on another, and it is an act that the other performs on me. In other words, I touch and at the same time I am touched. When I touch I am touch of the other. By extension, I am calling on the other to participate in a relationship of common love, attentiveness and concern. In ‘Felix Randal’, the priest offers ‘tongue’ and ‘touch’ to comfort the suffering parishioner. In turn, the man’s struggle ‘touch[es]’ the priest’s ‘heart’. The poem does not use the word ‘love’, but it bears witness to love’s capacity to affect the life of another. The alliteration (the emphasis on ‘t’ sounds, ‘tongue’, taught’, comfort’, etc.) and use of chiastic structure (in which the arrangement of a phrase is repeated in a reverse or mirrored fashion – e.g. ‘This séeing the síck endéars them tó us, us tóo it endéars’) – all of these techniques accumulate to represent a love that is given, received and returned in symmetry. I am interested in talking about love in relation to touch because I firmly believe that touch is vitally important to the ways that we experience and express attachment and love, whether it be in infancy, childhood or adulthood. After all, do we not long to touch the ones we love? And do we not dread the possibility that loved ones will not want to ‘keep in touch’? Hopkins’s fear of ‘losing touch’ with Christ is clearly evident in the metaphor of the ‘dead letter’ in his poem ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’. His speaker utters, ‘And my lament / Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away!’ (lines 6–8). In addition to wanting to touch our loves ones, we can say that love itself touches us. It is a feeling; we ‘feel’ it. We feel it within and in relation to the other, in the space between us and at the moment of contact. Following Augustine, Hopkins maintains that the most intimate touch is God’s presence within us. In his Confessions, Augustine argues that touch forms the basis of attachment between beings and things17 and that God’s touch best fulfils our need for loving contact with another: as he says, ‘Soft endearments are intended to arouse love. But there are no caresses tenderer than your charity [i.e. your calling forth the love]’ 18 . Similarly, Hopkins holds that no other being has the capacity to enter our hearts and affect us to the extent of which God is capable. As he declares in one of his spiritual notes, ‘God’s finger touch[es] the very vein of personality, which nothing else can reach’ (Sermons, 158) 19. By entering, God finds his home in the believer: in another set of notes (Sermons, 128), Hopkins references Augustine’s well-known declaration from Book Three of the Confessions. Says Augustine: ‘you were more inward than my most inward part and higher than the highest element within me’20. Illustrating the extent to which God can be found in the innermost being, in the very heart of the individual, Hopkins declares that ‘God rests in man … as the hand in the glove’ (Sermons, 195) 21. For Hopkins, love forms an inescapable impression on our physical, mental and spiritual being; in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ (stanza 9), he declares to God, ‘Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm’. Such love is ‘past télling of tóngue’ (stanza 9). While Christ’s love is fundamental to Hopkins’ existence, he finds it difficult to describe without appealing to the language of the senses. In this instance, the language is more than figurative. Thus, God is not simply like ‘lightning and love, …a winter and warm’; he is these things (‘Thou art’). God’s touch is literally electrifying. It shocks, astonishes, terrifies, and overwhelms. Of course, these are words that also describe the effects of passion. Stemming from the heavens and bridging material and immaterial worlds, this lightning is the arrow of the Greek god Eros in the heart (Origen mentions the god in his writings on the Song of Songs). It is also the blinding light at Paul’s conversion (which is referenced in stanza 10 of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’) 22. I return to the conversion experience because I believe that the first awareness of God’s touch occurs at the moment of conversion. The experience leads us, first, to become aware of God’s presence and, second, to respond by touching his ‘finger’. In other words, conversion enables the reciprocity of touch. It is through conversion that we come to know – and feel – God’s presence, as we turn to him, recognise his touch, and reciprocate. Indeed, the act of turning is implicit in the word itself, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originates from the Latin word convertere, which means, ‘to turn about, turn in character or nature, transform, translate, etc.’. Conversion heralds a state of being together with God, whereas the time before conversion is marked by the solitude of self-imposed exile. In the memorable words of Augustine, ‘You were with me, and I was not with you’ 23. Likewise, Hopkins’s speaker announces in the poem, ‘Thee, God, I come from, to thee go’ (line 9), ‘Once I turned from thee and hid’. But like the prodigal son returning home from a life astray, he seeks to (re)turn to the ‘Father’: ‘Bad I am, but yet thy child. / Father, be thou reconciled’ (lines 13–14).24 Conversion reconciles us to God and opens us to his plenitude. In ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, the ‘hard’ heart (stanza 7) of the converted is said to ‘melt’ (stanza 6) when it comes into contact with God’s ‘fire in him’ (stanza 10). Impressions of heat and melting are conventional descriptions of the sensations of love. Hopkins refers to this convention in an early poem, ‘A Voice from the World’, in which the speaker declares to his beloved, ‘This ice, this lead, this steel, this stone, / This heart is warm to you alone’ (lines 141–2). The saints went further and spoke of the burning sensation of longing. John of the Cross speaks of ‘en amores inflamada’ (‘burning with love’s long hungers’)25. Augustine says, ‘My God, how I burned, how I burned with longing to leave earthly things and fly back to you’26 . The literary origins of these descriptions go back at least as far as ancient Greece. Hopkins was well versed in Greek poetry, including the writings of Pindar and Sappho, both of whom Anne Carson cites when informing us that Eros, the god of love, is described in Greek poetry as ‘the melter of limbs’ (lusimelēs) 27. Similarly, for Hopkins, God’s ‘softening touch’28 allows the formerly ‘hard’ and unreceptive individual to ‘warm’ towards him. The penetration of God’s warmth into the heart of the newly converted is akin to spring’s sudden thawing of winter: as he says in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, ‘stealing as Spring / Through him, melt him but master him still’ (‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, stanza 10). Like spring, conversion is a time of rebirth. To conclude, I’d like to consider how we might apply Hopkins’s ideas of love in the world today. How might we put these ideas into action? Let’s return to thinking about bodies. ‘Each body comes into the world from another body’, says theologian Gerard Loughlin29. When the Word came into the world he became flesh to dwell with us.30 The Greek author, Nikos Kazantzakis, has written, ‘The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I understand—when I can smell, see, and touch.’31 How, then, do we touch, see, and smell the Word, today? Thinking about God as flesh helps us to realign our relationships with others. For example, the possibility that an all-knowing, all-powerful entity would choose to become human, would choose to become vulnerable to all the things to which we are vulnerable, including suffering and death, provides an exemplary framework on which we can model our lives and relate to others. Because thinking about love in terms of the incarnation gives us the potential to embrace, more than ever, an ethics of reciprocity. In one of his most famous poems, Hopkins says that ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces’ (lines 12–14). Embodiment is something that humans have in common. And, indeed, it is what we share with Christ. Limbs and faces, bodies and beings, remind Hopkins of Christ, in whom is found – and I quote Hopkins – “all things that can make man lovely and loveable.” 32 And yet, I argue that many people are in fact unwilling to ascribe the flesh of the Word, in its beauty and vulnerability, to those who are different from us. Why is that? For we know that it is ‘warm flesh’, and not abstractions, that can touch us and be touched by us. By opening ourselves to the very enfleshment of other humans, we are able to partake in an openness to others that is fundamental to human existence and social formation, a sense of responsibility to another that is built on our mutual dependencies. No man or woman lives in isolation; the world is our village. Our relations with one another should be built on the love that God brought with him when he decided to become flesh and dwell with us. By seeing the face of Christ in the faces of others, Hopkins prods us to view the world and its inhabitants anew, and shows us that each single one of us is ‘lovely and loveable’.


1  Foltz and Bender, A Concordance  to the Sermons of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 156–8. In addition, the word ‘loveable’ occurs twice, ‘loved’ 25, ‘lovely’ 7, ‘lover’ 4, ‘loves’ 13, and ‘loving’ 6 times (158–9).
2 From a letter dated 16 October 1866.
3 From a letter dated 1 June 1864; emphasis original.
4 Carr, The Erotic Word, 10.
5 Nygren places a divide between the common Christian concept of love, agape, and the Greek or Platonic concept of desire, eros. ‘There cannot actually be any doubt,’ he says, ‘that Eros and Agape belong originally to two entirely separate worlds, between which no direct communication is possible’ (Nygren, Agape and Eros,13).
6 From a sermon dated 31 August 1879.
7 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 99–100.
8 Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, vol. 4, 83.2.4.
9 Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, vol. 4, 83.3.5.
10 Srivi, ‘The Song of Songs’, 50; emphasis original.
11 John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, 166.
12 Song of Songs 6:9; emphasis added.
13 Song of Songs 1:8.
14 Song of Songs 2:2.
15 Ignatius of Loyola, ‘Contemplation for Obtaining Love’, cited in Sermons, 192–4.
16 From notes on ‘Contemplation for Obtaining Love’, dated 14 August 1882; emphasis original. Unless otherwise stated, Hopkins’ spiritual notes concern sections of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
18 Augustine Confessions 2.6.13.
19 From undated notes on ‘On Personality, Grace and Free Will’.
20 Augustine Confessions 3.6.11.
21 From notes on ‘Contemplation for Obtaining Love’, dated 8 December 1881.
22 Acts 9: 3–9.
17 ‘There is beauty in lovely physical objects, as in gold and silver and all other such things. When the body touches such things, much significance attaches to the rapport of the object with the touch… Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls’ (Augustine Confessions 2.5.10).
23 Augustine Confessions 10.27.38.
24 Compare this to Augustine: ‘As an adolescent I went astray from you (Ps.118: 76), my God, far from your unmoved stability. I became to myself a region of destitution’ (Augustine Confessions 2.10.18).
25 John of the Cross, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ (Mariani, God and the Imagination, 219, 221.
26 Augustine Confessions 3.3.8.
27 Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, 115. The example by Sappho is from Fragment 130. For more on Hopkins’ knowledge of Sappho and Pindar, see Dixon, 150, and Bridges, 49, 123, 147, 157, 159, 228–9, 233–4 and 239. Yopie Prins argues that the Victorian period saw ‘an increasing number of scholarly editions, poetic translations, and other literary imitations’ of Sappho’s surviving work (Victorian Sappho, 3).
28 ‘And hard men feel a softening touch’, Hopkins writes in ‘Il Mystico’ (line 30).
29 Loughlin, Alien Sex, xii.
30 “‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. And when the Word came to dwell with us, it became—what? A book? A creed? A theological system? A code of morality? No! To the everlasting embarrassment of all dualistic piety, it became flesh” (Nelson, “On Doing Body Theology,” 47).
31 Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, quoted in ibid.
32 Sermons, 35.

Other 2013 Hopkins Festival Links

Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Love in the Writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Poet as Prophet || Romanantic Poetics || Hopkins nad the Church of England || Meister Eckhart and his Influence on Gerard Manley Hopkins || Robert Bridges and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Saint Patrick's Breastplate ||