Hopkins Lectures 2013

Hopkins and St. Patrick's Breastplate

Kevin T. McEneaney Writer Educator Researcher  

After his October examinations in 1884, Gerard Manley Hopkins, penned a letter to Robert Bridges; Hopkins also enclosed a copy of the prayer known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Hopkins mused upon producing “a new and critical edition of St. Patrick’s “Confession.” (Letters to Bridges 195) Hopkins thought that (except for its brevity) Patrick’s “Confession” was worthy to rank with St. Augustine’s Confessions and St. Ignatius’ Imitation. Hopkins notes that Patrick’s “Confession” is closer to Paul’s epistles “than anything else I know, unless perhaps St. Clement of Rome.” This project vanished stillborn. Norman White cites the optimism of the intended project as an expression of Hopkins’s “early desire to do well by Ireland.” (White, Hopkins, A Literary Life 376)

This desire permeates Hopkins’s March 17, 1885, notebook meditation where he thanks Patrick for his Confession because it breathes “an enthusiasm which as far as feeling goes I feel but my action does not answer to this.” (Devlin 260). Hopkins admires the saint who, like himself, has experienced exile from England. In the Confession there is great emphasis on being an alien in a strange land. Reading Patrick’s Confession may have given Hopkins the courage to write “To seem the Stranger,” which appears to have been written by May of 1885. Hopkins had initially intended to send the poem to Robert Bridges, but he never did. (Phillips 372) The poem begins “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life / Among strangers.” Hopkins must have felt that his “lonely began” in Ireland followed with parallel tread the footsteps of St. Patrick.

Like Patrick, Hopkins has struggled to retain both piety and patience amid strange cultural circumstances. In noting Patrick’s patience it is clear that Hopkins identifies with Patrick’s tone of wounded exasperation combined with angry absurdity in the Confession. Hopkins proceeds to itemize the saint’s self-sacrifice, zeal, miracles, and, most tellingly, Patrick’s success in Ireland. Hopkins concludes with a prayer-plea for the saint’s help for Ireland “in all its needs” and also for himself in his performance as a teacher and examiner. (Mariani 341) Here Patrick has become not an object of scholarship, but an object of devotion—someone whose success exceeds Hopkins’s own situation.  
During the summer of 1885, Hopkins’ investigation of Egyptian culture and art, intended as background for his never-written book on Homer, anticipated in minor key the conjectural Egyptian-roots background research to Greek culture eventually taken up by Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987, revised 1991). This speculation on Egyptian religion and etymologies led Hopkins to renew his correspondence with the great Celtic scholar Dr. John Rhys. On April 23, 1886, Rhys prodded Hopkins to return to his idea of editing a scholarly edition of Patrick’s Confessio. In the letter Rhys agrees with Hopkins’s observation that Patrick was clearly from what is today Wales. Rhys cites a contemporary 1885 academic book that argued Patrick was an Irishman to be oddly perverse. (Further Letters 418)

If Hopkins had done a scholarly edition on the famous Briton—that is, a Welsh-peaking person—Rhys might have possibly cited Hopkins’s work in his book. While one could make a list of Hopkins abandoned projects, it is one thing to drop an ambitious book on Homer or Pindar, and another to drop a more manageable project like the Confessio.

I will examine the possible reasons that, outside the demands of time, may have caused Hopkins to abandon Patrick, but first let us think why Hopkins might have thought Patrick’s Confessio a worthy scholarly project.

As a fellow citizen of England, Hopkins clearly identified with the famous Briton, whose name was Maewyn Succat (Gentle Friend Fierce in War). Hopkins was a great admirer of the incantatory prayer-poem “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” which brims with incarnational meditation. Hopkins would have been attracted to the passionate evangelical tone of Patrick’s letter. Intense with Pauline Parousia, (Vermes 105ff), Patrick announces he is preaching the gospel “to the ends of the earth,” thus activating the last days of humankind. Patrick was an enormously successful preacher and physically built more churches than Saint Paul. Hopkins was interested in languages; Patrick notes that he speaks several languages, which most likely would have been Welsh, Irish, Latin, and French, yet lamenting that he speaks none of these languages with the facility of a native speaker. Patrick admits that he is illiterate, which means that he was most likely dyslexic or could not write for some reason, which is why he had a French secretary deacon by the name of Segitius.

When Patrick was made bishop in Briton in order to inherit his much older brother-in-law’s diocese, Germanus was in Wales to lobby against the Pelagian inclinations. Some think Germanus consecrated Patrick as bishop with the intent of replacing Palladius, (Bury 59), but there is no evidence for that assertion. Patrick appears to have been consecrated bishop about 430, yet it is quite possible that Germanus approved or supported Patrick’s mission to Ireland, although if that were true, he would certainly have cited such approbation in either of his surviving letters.

  While the surface orthodoxy of Patrick’s letter with its dense citations of scripture might have appealed, in an academic way, to Hopkins, the Latin itself, while deeply emotional, is not polished. Hopkins would certainly have admired the brilliant tour-de-force apology Patrick makes on his behalf, yet some of the implications contained in Patrick’s letter would be disturbing on a number of levels. 

The Confessio, circa 437 (certainly before 441), begins with an emphatic yet  traditional  acknowledgement that the author is a sinner—hence the title under which it was known in Hopkins’s day. The work is now thought to be a letter replying to a subpoena, and is now called by scholars a Declaration. Patrick declares that he is not complying with the subpoena, arguing that the subpoena is frivolous, mischievous, and un-Christian; moreover, he is not ever returning to Briton. Although Patrick’s myriad scriptural citations are devotional, the letter approaches angry defiance, bordering on outrage. The charges appear to be: Patrick is the bishop of North Wales and he has no jurisdiction at all in Ireland; that converting the Irish heathen is a misconceived project; that he had stolen many valuable goods from the diocese (Bibles, missals, vestments, chalices, etc.); that he has become wealthy from selling holy orders.

The Greek Palladius was appointed by Pope Celestine I as the first bishop to Ireland in 431. Palladius was subsequently exiled by the King of Leinster early in the winter of 432. Palladius then landed in Northern Britain where he proclaimed himself to be Bishop to the Picts. Upon hearing the news of Palladius’ embarrassing failure and his new self-appointed mission and title, Patrick almost immediately left for Ireland in the early spring of 432, the year cold winter weather began to afflict Ireland and Britain due to Icelandic volcanic activity which lasted until 449 (Ludlow).
  While Palladius had arrived in Ireland with four bishops (according to canon law of that period, three bishops were needed to consecrate a bishop), one of those bishops departed with Palladius. The dynamic of creating a church in Ireland was temporarily thwarted until Patrick leapt into the breach with the different tactic of preaching to unconverted northern Irish by creating a home base at Trim by the Boyne River where Scoth Noe, daughter of the King of Wales (in de Paor 204) (possibly a daughter of the Emperor Magnus Maximus by Elen), had married the Irish king Fedilmid, one of King Loigaire’s sons. (Bury 102, 302)
  Patrick answers the more difficult charge that he was not appointed as bishop of Ireland with the reply that he went at the bidding of the angel Victor who has appeared to him many times during his life, beginning when he was in servitude as a young man in Ireland. Patrick recounts a list of many goods he gave several churches when he had sold his tenant lands on becoming bishop. He declares he has never sold any office or accepted even gifts placed upon church altars; he asserts that, like Paul to the Gentiles, he has a special mission from God to preach the gospel “to the ends of the earth”; he notes that the diocese had, shortly after his becoming bishop, put him on trial for an unidentified indiscretion he committed at the age of fourteen when he was not a practicing Christian or believer. The subpoena presents another ridiculous and mendacious attempt to humiliate him. Some of the non-Irish speaking Welsh-language priests who had accompanied Patrick were dismissed by Patrick and sent back to Wales where resentment festered into slander. Patrick asserts he does not lie and he lives the evangelical gospel to the full, continually putting his life at risk, while they sit at home nastily carping and plotting calumny. 
   In Patrick’s other surviving letter, the letter to Coroticus (which is difficult to date but most likely written before the Declaration), the charge of having no jurisdiction in Ireland also persists. To this Patrick replies that he is correctly called bishop of Ireland, the implication being that his bishopric was achieved through public acclamation, which was still a valid way of becoming a bishop. Later, according the both the Annals and Muirichu’s biography, it is recorded that Pope Leo the Great (440-61) approved (probatio) of Patrick’s bishopric (Hood 8), most likely when Patrick visited Rome in 441, returning with relics purported to be of Peter and Paul (Bury 153). After his return to Erin, Patrick began to build the church in Armagh on October 1, 444. (Hood 47-48) Yet as a convert, should Hopkins, as a scholar, be calling attention to the more open legal flexibility of an earlier church that might have sounded like a Protestant Church?
  Arriving in Ireland with several Welsh-speaking priests and two other bishops besides his brother-in-law, Patrick constructed his own independent church, clearly separating the jurisdiction of Ireland from Britain. He didn’t want his former enemies to meddle with or obstruct his work. The Canons of St. Patrick (now at the Corpus Christi library at Cambridge) probably date from the late fifth century; they include the rule that priests from Britain are forbidden to preach in Ireland without a special license from the Irish church. (Bury 233-55) This insular notion within a sensitive political context was revived by Walsh to oppose the nomination of Hopkins’s 1884 Fellowship post in Dublin. (White 354-69) Hopkins’s appointment was against the long-running precedent established by St. Patrick as well as current political passions, yet if the Jesuit Father Delany wanted a classicist, there was really no other substantive alternative.
  Patrick had dearly wanted to go to Ireland; he saw himself as destined to go there; Hopkins had not. Patrick appointed himself as bishop to Ireland between the death of Pope Celestine I and the election of Xistus III, while Hopkins reluctantly followed orders of vowed obedience.
  Hopkins may have been reluctant to address the sexual orientation of the unmarried Patrick (not the usual custom of that era). Patrick regularly travelled with a crew of handsome young princes as an insurance policy, something he mentions in the Declaration. This procedure, however, was standard practice amid the chaos of the fifth century as Peter Brown notes in his recent book, yet a study of this early medieval period on the part of Hopkins would have been a major deflection from his work on Homer.
  Unlike Patrick, Hopkins did not speak Irish. Although Hopkins worked diligently at composing his sermons, and many admired his sermons, evangelical conversion was not the obsession of Hopkins while Hopkins’s evangelical attitude toward Homer was a suspect activity. The apocalyptic end-of-world Parousia of either Paul or Patrick does not play a role in Hopkins’s life. The British Empire was not going to sink suddenly and bring about the end of humankind.
  As time passed, Hopkins was not always happy in Ireland. Patrick found fulfillment in Ireland where he became the third pillar of Christianity through mass conversions by the thousands and the consecration of hundreds of bishops—at least as many bishops than existed at that time in the rest of the Roman Catholic Church; the eventual outcome of this was to effect the conversion of the German tribes to Christianity with the notable exception of the Scandinavians. However well his sermons were received by a select few, such phenomenal success on a social level was to elude Hopkins, yet as an Englishman Hopkins has posthumously become perhaps Ireland’s second most famous poet after W. B. Yeats.
Will Pope Francis in Rome follow St. Patrick’s method of stacking the hierarchical deck? In his acceptance speech as the bishop of Rome, Francis joked that the Cardinals had “gone to the ends of the earth” to find him. If Francis was self-consciously alluding to Patrick’s Declaration in the phrase “to the ends of the earth,” then he was hinting that he would displace the Italian domination of the Church through appointments of bishops and cardinals. Already, within two months of his election as bishop of Rome, Francis has proclaimed in a single ceremony more saints at one go than any other pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church (Pope Benedict XVI  had already done the preparatory work).
  If the newly arrived classical scholar of Dublin mustered the courage and conviction to publish his astute observations on Saint Patrick, as Dr. Rhys had advised, and not let cultural partisanship hinder “sound historical training” (Rhys, ibid.), Hopkins would have severely embarrassed his sponsor Delany; Hopkins would have been quickly driven out of a politicized Ireland before a denizen from Dublin could say “I told you so.” It was left to a Trinity College Anglican classicist from County Monaghan, J. B. Bury, with his landmark biography of St. Patrick in 1905 to inform the Irish people that St. Patrick was, like Hopkins, an import from its neighboring isle.
On February 11, 1986, Hopkins still fretted about his unwritten book on Homer’s art, concluding in a letter to Baillie: “I suppose like everything else of mine it will come to nothing in the end, but I cannot keep that likelihood always in view or I should do nothing at it at all.” (Further Letters 257) Bogged down in curious etymological tangents, the traditional “disease” of Homeric scholars that Aristotle in the Poetics tagged as an obsession for individual trees rather than an assessment of the forest’s panorama, Hopkins’s duties as a priest and his vocation as a poet did not permit the time necessary for a massive tome on Homer, yet in the end we have an instance of Homeric-influenced ambiance in the 1888 “Epithalamium,” written for his brother Everard’s wedding, where the sensual bathing scene echoes Nausicaa at the river as well as childhood swimming memories. We also have the Christo-centric poetic world which reverberates in the many sonnets influenced by “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” (see Ferlita)     
  On March 17, 1889, Hopkins wrote his poem “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” in which, Hopkins employs an epitaph from Jeremiah the prophet for his sonnet. Norman White (White, Hopkins in Ireland 188-93) provides extended circumstantial parallels shared by Hopkins and Jeremiah, both exiles who possess inner worlds at odds with the religious establishment. The significance of the sonnet’s date escapes White. Hopkins had traditionally meditated on the life and virtues of the day’s particular saint. Since Hopkins possessed a shared identity with St. Patrick as a stranger in a strange land, there is no reason to believe that that March 17 saint’s day was any different from previous dates.
  One connection in the poem to St. Patrick’s exilic Declaration revolves around a concluding theme of lust in the octet: “Oh, the sots and thralls of lust / Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend.” Patrick’s Declaration, which begins with a double acknowledgement that he is a great sinner, carried the implication that a certain sexual waywardness afflicted his life, thus offering Hopkins a subsidiary theme for his composition on St. Patrick’s Day. (The asterisks—alluding to the rocky, ship-shaped island between Cephalonia and Ithaca from Homer’s Odyssey—in Hopkins’s notebooks confess his lingering, guilty obsession with his own form of lust, masturbation.) Both Hopkins and the saint of the day probably had dissimilar problems with lust.
The sestet then turns from religion to nature, noting nature’s fecundity as a rebuke to Hopkins’s poetic productivity. In anguished self-reproach Hopkins calls himself “Time’s eunuch.” He has not bred a single work that artistically wakes, concluding his sonnet with the more intimate thou while addressing the deity (not a distancing formula as White asserts) in prayer: “send my roots rain.” Hopkins had been, both as sketcher and poet (“Binsey Poplars” among others), obsessed by the beauty of trees. The comparison of himself to a tree in his third-to-last poem is striking, especially when, in his last two poems, he intensely employs the metaphor of fire and flame, as if he were, unconsciously speaking, a burning tree—the imagery produced, of course, by the effect of typhoid fever from which Hopkins died.
When he penned “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord,” Hopkins had less than three months to live. Had Hopkins lived in Ireland close to the thirty years that St. Patrick spent in Ireland, he would not have considered himself Time’s eunuch. Nor would Hopkins have considered himself Time’s eunuch had the Jesuits permitted him to publish in magazine or book form. Such social encouragement would have provided Hopkins with a measure of self-confidence, which would have provided a different outlook on life.

Despite Hopkins’s humble proclivity for self-abnegation, compliance to authority, and his dire circumstances as an exile in Dublin, we, who appreciate the enormity of what Hopkins achieved, view him not as “Time’s eunuch,” but as Time’s Heroic Diamond as we meditate on his roots, hoping for Wisdom’s rain.


Abbott, Claude Colleer, The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935.
_____. Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.
Brown, Peter. Through the Eye of a Needle Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, 395-98.
Bury, J.B., The Life of Saint Patrick and his place in history. London: Macmillan, 1905.
De Paor, Liam, ed., “Further Fragments from the Book of Armagh” in Saint Patrick’s World. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.
Devlin, Christopher, S.J., The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Ferlita, Erenst, S. J., “At a Third Remove: Gerard Manley Hopkins and ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate’” at http://gerardmanleyhopkins.org/studies/st_patrick.html
Hood, A.B.E., ed., St. Patrick: His writings and Muirchu’s Life. London: Phillimore, 1978.
Ludlow, Francis, et al., “Medieval Irish chronicles reveal persistent volcanic forcing of severe winter cold events, 431–1649 CE,” Environmental Research Letters, June, 2013 at http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024035/pdf/1748-9326_8_2_024035.pdf
Mackenzie, Norman H., The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.
Mariani, Paul, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life. New York: Viking, 2008.
Phillips, Catherine, ed., Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1986, 2009.
Vermes, Geza, Christian Beginnings: from Nazareth to Nicaea. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
White, Norman, Hopkins: A Literary Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995.
_____. Hopkins in Ireland. Dublin: University of Dublin Press, 2002.

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 ||