Hopkins Lectures 2014


Gerard Manley Hopkins Correspondence with John Henry Newman

Catherine Phillips  

On Sept 10 1864 the twenty-year old Gerard Manley Hopkins received a letter from his Oxford friend, A. W.  Mowbray Baillie:
‘Dear Baillie, - Your letter has been sent to me from Hampstead [the Hopkins family’s home]. It has just come, and I do a rare thing with me, begin at once on an answer… The letter-writer on principle does not make his letter only an answer; it is a work embodying perhaps answers to questions put by his correspondent but that is not its main motive. Therefore it is as a rule not well to write with a received letter fresh on you. I suppose the right way is to let it sink into you, and reply after a day or two. I do not know why I have said all this.
There is much that is characteristic of Hopkins in his reply: the strong impression we receive of a voice speaking, but actually moderated by being transmitted in writing; the allusion to rules by which to live and to govern conduct; the consideration about the act of writing, deliberating whether what he is doing is right; even the breaking off just before what we would be most interested in –  a reply to a letter is ‘a work embodying perhaps answers to questions…but that is not is main motive’; such discontinuation is a recurring frustration – just what, in Hopkins’s eyes, was the main motive of a letter? And the final, frank admission, ‘I do not know why I have said all this’,  implying the direct transcription of thought without mediation which it is so tempting to think true of the poems until the artistry with which the images and sounds have been arranged has been noticed.

In comparison with other Victorians such as Dickens, whose letters extend to twelve volumes, Hopkins was far from prolific. (The same sort of ratio exists with respect to the other writing of Dickens and Hopkins, though the diversity of Hopkins's achievement exceeds that of Dickens:  Hopkins has his sermons, his drawings, his music, and the creative work - his poems are not just in English but Latin, Greek and Welsh.) The range of subjects in Hopkins's letters is obviously constrained by the fact that shortly after he graduated from Oxford he entered the Society of Jesus:  there are, for example, no love letters or letters about other intimate /familial relationships. On the other hand, because some of his longest correspondences were with other writers such as Robert Bridges and Richard Watson Dixon, we do have a lot about literature including rather shrewd assessments about what was likely to survive changes in taste. There is a significant amount about fine artists, more comments that are aesthetic judgements independent of his religious faith than perhaps one might expect (though there are too assessments that are governed by religious considerations). There are passages about items in the news such as the International Yacht Match between the American yacht, Sappho, and the British Cambria, (5 April and 17 June 1871, CWI 207) and the Tichborne case (the trial of a fraudulent impersonator of the heir to a large fortune). And many of his creative successes stem from an artist's ability to see what is crucial to conveying a vivid impression; so, in criticising Robert Browning for 'untruths to human nature', for example, he comments that Browning and his characters talk 'with the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense' (to Dixon, 12-17 October 1881, CWI, 477).
What Hopkins gives us in his letters, as in his poems, is in many ways the product of education as Matthew Arnold understood it – an ability to understand what is important.  Hopkins's comments are often surprisingly broad-minded and kindly; he wrote many letters to cheer up others, to try to help them with their poetic projects, even as his own lay wasting. This, I may say, was truly the product of his education - not so much that of the classics at Oxford - as the product of his refining as an undergraduate Tractarian Christian and later as a Jesuit. There are moments of vindictiveness and callow judgment in the youthful letters but these are gradually repressed, replaced with greater modesty and generosity. In August 1889 (two months after Hopkins's death), Coventry Patmore wrote to Bridges, sympathising in the loss of his friend, saying that Hopkins was 'the only orthodox, and as far as I could see, saintly man in whom religion had absolutely no narrowing effect upon his general opinions and sympathies' (12 August 1889, CWII, 1014). Patmore's is one of a number of letters of condolence we have included in our new edition, written generally to GMH's parents and giving insights about what Hopkins had meant to his friends. As well as the substantial correspondence Hopkins had with Robert Bridges (in which RB's side was unfortunately destroyed); with R. W. Dixon (who was briefly his teacher at Highgate), with the poet, Coventry Patmore, and A. W. Mowbray Baillie, there are less voluminous exchanges such as that with John Henry Newman, on which I will focus. 

One of the first references we have to Newman in Hopkins’ letters is in that letter to Baillie with which I began (10 September 1864; CWI, 67-73). In the course of writing/ talking about letters printed in The Church Times Hopkins comments on the pettiness, lack of reverence, 'vulgarity, injustice, ignorance, cant' shown in them such as made him unwilling to associate himself with such people. In comparison, he had developed considerable esteem for his Oxford friend, William Addis. He also suggested that John Henry Newman, whose move from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism was an extreme reaction to flaws in Tractarianism, was in fact, 'a MODERATE MAN.’ The distinction that Hopkins seems to be making here is between content/ ideas that can be extreme and a manner of presenting them that is measured or moderate.

Hopkins made this comment almost exactly twelve months before his confession notes record his hinting at a possibility of conversion and just under two years before he moved formally. Clearly, Hopkins's conversion was the result of several factors: a weighing up of the claims of Roman Catholicism as against those of the Church of England; the momentum built up towards conversion by his friends, such as Addis, who were following a similar religious journey. However, it would also seem likely that the balanced tone in which Newman wrote, and his pleasant and calm manner with Hopkins were also important in providing him with a reassuring centre to which to gravitate.

The first letter Hopkins wrote to Newman, on 28 August 1866, was one of the most important he was ever to pen. In it Hopkins said that he was 'anxious to become a Catholic' and wanted to see Newman, not to be helped to belief in Catholicism, of which he was already convinced, but because his change in belief had practical consequences about which he wanted advice.  The request is embedded in statements about his anxiety that he should not impose too much or disarrange Newman's busy schedule. Afterwards, Hopkins described his visit to Newman in his letters to Edward William Urquhart and Robert Bridges. Urquhart was five years older than Hopkins but was curate at SS Philip and James in Oxford at the time Hopkins was an undergraduate there and the two had a not entirely easy friendship. Hopkins wrote to him on the day he saw Newman and it is clear that one of the things on which he had sought clarification was relevant to Urquhart's position rather than his own; he reassures Urquhart that 'an Anglican is at full liberty to believe in his Orders, for that re-ordination is not defined as conditional proves nothing; ' (CWI, 93). Even before he had himself  joined the Catholic Church, he was pushing Urquhart to do so; concern with the religious position of family or friends in the light of Catholic doctrine was to be recurrent during the rest of Hopkins's life.
To Bridges Hopkins wrote a letter that cost him more time and consideration. It is from this letter that we get some sense of the interview. Hopkins described Newman as 'most kind...genial and almost, so to speak, unserious' (22 September 1866 CWI, 97). Newman had guided Hopkins to see what he needed to do by asking him questions, checking that his reasons for wanting to become a Catholic had been thought through. Hopkins offered to leave several times but was encouraged to stay and talk, discouraged from rushing his conversion and urged to concentrate on obtaining a good degree.

The letter to Bridges was finished two days later, after Hopkins had tried to see George Street, the architect and designer, about the making of a communion vessel as a present for Bridges to give his sister Carrie Glover and her husband, who was an Anglican vicar. Bridges lived in Rochdale in Lancashire and Hopkins in Hampstead on the northern fringe of London with its noted ecclesiastical shops and designers. The communion vessel might be seen as a physical symbol of Hopkins's position with regard to Bridges and the two churches - Anglican and Catholic. At the time he was announcing his belief that the Catholic Church was 'the true church', he was assisting in obtaining (and later even designing) for Anglican services the communion cup manifesting the fundamental belief in the Resurrection that Bridges and he shared as Tractarian and Roman Catholic, perhaps to show Bridges that he wanted their friendship to survive his conversion. It is clear that Hopkins had little hope that Bridges might become a Catholic; he thought it more likely of Urquhart and pressed him hard.

Over the next few months Newman gave Hopkins examples of the difference between an over-anxious, too precious belief and one that was part of the fabric of a life. Hopkins enquired about whether he ought to avoid travelling on Sunday, to which Newman replied that there was no reason he should not travel on Sunday if it were convenient (18 October 1866) and calmed Hopkins's angst over being in sinful attendance in an Anglican chapel by assuring him that, if he were not given permission to absent himself from services, he could say his own prayers there (CWI, 121). When Hopkins thought that the friction with his parents over his conversion might make it impossible for him to go home, Newman invited him to spend his Christmas vacation at the Oratory in Egbaston, near Birmingham. However, as the situation with his family eased, Hopkins decided to go home and wrote to tell Newman. That letter is not extant but Newman's reply is, in which he expresses his conviction that, although Hopkins was welcome to come to the Oratory, if he could go home, then that was the right place for him. Again, Newman seems to have set out to calm Hopkins's anxieties, urging him to concentrate on his degree and allow himself to be 'led on by the Grace of God step by step' (CWI, 132). Newman subsequently modified this leisurely pace with an affectionate and supportive letter suggesting  that Hopkins come to the Oratory for a week at the end of his Christmas vacation, which was an abnormally long one, to begin 'to get into Catholic ways', and, although winter weather set in, Hopkins spent from Jan 17-25 there.

On February 22 (1867) Newman invited Hopkins, who was to graduate in June and was looking round for a job, to become a teacher at the Oratory school, an invitation he accepted. This was an important period in Hopkins's religious development. Bernadette Waterman Ward argues that Hopkins accepted Newman's conviction that knowledge of most things in the world is the willed assent to the information of the senses interpreted by others' experience and that there are multiple perceptions that are all true. She notes that it was while Hopkins was at the Oratory that he began to use the term 'inscape' for the perception of communicable truth about things in the world. These were clearly important developments for Hopkins's ideas but he missed the stimulus and companionship of his time at Oxford and, although he was fond of his schoolpupils, by the end of the school year he was eager to leave. Again it is a letter to Baillie that gives us the premonition of Hopkins's next step and a letter from Newman that tells us of Hopkins's decision. To Baillie, Hopkins wrote that he had become overtired and unwell and found having so much teaching 'very burdensome'. He was, he said, very anxious 'to get away from this place'. Characteristically, he also mentioned a new artistic venture - he had begun to learn to play the violin. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Newman played the violin and that he performed in quartets at the Oratory (GMH to Baillie, 12 February 1868 CWI, 175).

Hopkins’s next step, joining the Society of Jesus, however, was a bit of a surprise to Newman, who wrote to reassure him that he was not letting him down in deciding against becoming an Oratorian. He had seen 'from the moment you came to us' that his vocation would not lie there; nor would the Benedictine Order have been likely to have been right.  He congratulated Hopkins on his decision, counselling, 'Don’t call “the Jesuit discipline hard”, it will bring you to heaven.' (14 May 1868, CWI, 178).

Hopkins reported to Newman his progress in the Novitiate, and upon taking his first vows as a Jesuit in September 1870, received from him a letter of congratulations (26 Sept CWI, 201). In 1873 Hopkins sent the first of the birthday greetings to Newman that he would send for the rest of his life. Newman’s reply shows that Hopkins felt able to confide in him as to his state of health, which was again not good, and Newman expressed his concern at this (27 Feb 1873 CWI 223).

There are quite a few more of these birthday letters, which discuss a range of subjects from views on contemporary writers to the political situation in Ireland.  However, the most momentous is that of 20 February 1884, in which Hopkins announced his unwilling move to Dublin, five years before his own death, and six before that of Newman.  'I am writing,' he told him, 'from where I never thought to be', in the university that Newman had lead at its inception from 1850-1858  and which had since that time, 'long and unhappily languished' (CWII, 660). Hopkins tries to put a brave face on the uphill struggle that the re-born institution and its staff clearly faced but his fears that the task exceeded his physical strength and spirits are apparent; he had, he said, at first tried to decline the offer.  The only building of those Newman had known to have escaped the general dilapidation and dinginess, he reported,  was the little church that Newman had commissioned in a Byzantine style but which no longer belonged to the College. With considerable nostalgia, Hopkins remarks that it 'reminds me of the Oratory'. We might wonder perhaps whether he reflected with any regret on that decision made sixteen years earlier to leave behind the labour but stability of his life there.

 Note:   The new edition of Hopkins's Correspondence, generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, comprises the first two of eight volumes being published by Oxford University Press in a Collected Works of eight volumes. The letters were edited by Kelsey Thornton and myself and were published in March (2013). Hopkins's letters were originally edited by C. C. Abbott in three volumes and published in the 1930s by Oxford University Press, with a revised edition in the 1950s, much expanded by the new collections  of letters with particular correspondents that had been discovered in the interim. They were consequently grouped according to correspondent. What we have been able to do is to produce a chronological ordering that places all the replies we have been able to find in the sequence to produce a sort of journal or biography; replies are distinguished by a different font. Cancellations and insertions are included so that it is easier to trace the sequence of thought and occasionally to get closer to understanding what may be ambiguous or opaque.   There are new letters/ cards; of two kinds: those that they weren't in the previous edition, though they have been published in various places since Abbott's edition appeared in revised form in 1955-6, and those that are completely new; allowing us to show facets of Hopkins's life and character that weren't illuminated before, such as that about a concert at the people's palace at Sydenham that he attended in the 1860s, and which can be found elsewhere on this website.

The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume I Correspondence 1852-1881, [CWI] Volume II Correspondence 1882-1889, [CWII] edited by R. K. R. Thornton and Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). The quotations appear by permission of OUP (URL www.oup.com)

(CWI, 67). The transcriptions of the letters in this lecture are simplified from their versions in the Collected Works (CWI and II), where alterations are included.

Bernadette Waterman Ward, World as Word: Philosophical Theolgy in Gerard Manley Hopkins (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), chapters 5, and 10.


Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins| Baudelaire, Hopkins and Egan | Desiderata | Hopkins Sermons : Bruno Gaurier | Re-Reading The Wreck |