Gerard Manley Hopkins is mostly and at most known around the world as a poet. I personally came to him – or preferably was met by him – through his poetry. As you know he has been part of my poetic and spiritual life since about 20 years as translator of both his poetry and the first part of journals.
There has been until now some discussion and argument about the link – or the non-linkage at all – between his poetry and his personal commitments, above all his becoming a Catholic and assuming priesthood by the Jesuits.
I found several themes linking the sermons with the poetry and I will present 3 of these today:
1. The human, the humane and the divine
2. The background of Duns Scotus philosophy and theology on the relation between Incarnation and Beauty;
3. The symbolic meaning of God’s and Christ’s finger: Law, Care and Cure
From Hopkins, as a priest, we have 26 sermons given between July 1879 and June 1881 - a period of exactly two years and in three different places: 6 Lectures / Sermons in Oxford, 7 in Bedford (Township Leigh – greater Manchester – a region of coal mining and dark industry) and 13 in Liverpool. In Bedford and Liverpool he was in direct contact with daily genuine poverty. He might have given more than such a number of sermons: Those we have access to, are the ones which survived in a cahier called and well known under “Fr. Humphrey’s book”. It seems he may have given other sermons, most probably during the year 1877/1878. These may have been possible rehearsals, shortly before and after he was ordained – on 23rd September 1877.
His friends and relatives thought he was well fit for the high intellectual Oxford society. The same felt quite disappointed when learning he was sent to a difficult industrial area near Manchester. But in fact, from that period in Bedford Leigh, we get peaceful letters of joy. His sermons, given during that very time, are probably the most prolific he ever gave in connection with poetry. They are full of inspiration and inscape. Not the easiest. Surprisingly sometimes difficult to understand for the population expected to listen to him during Sunday Mass: workers in mines, poor families from industrial areas, polluted by smokes and darkness.
He writes (1): “The place is very gloomy but our people hearty and devoted”. First theme: the human, the humane and the divine From his letters we also learn that, given his duties as a curate in a parish, he nevertheless finds some time to dedicate to his poetry, writings and letters. He seems to organise his life between writing, poetising, spiritual research and his priestly role.
On November 5, 1879, some days after the letter mentioned above, he again writes to Canon Dixon:
“I am thinking of a tragedy on St. Winifred’s Martyrdom and have done a little and of another on Margaret Clitheroe, who suffered by pressing to death at York on Ouse Bridge, Lady Day 1586 (I think): her history is terrible and heartrending …” (2)
You know the poem:
“She She held her hands to, like in prayer;
They had them out and ladd them wide
(Just like Jesus crucified);
She told his name times-over three;
I suffer this she said for Thee..”
Now coming to his sermon at St. Joseph’s Bedford dated Dec. 14, 1879, he reads Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians chapter IV, verse 4, 5: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near…” His point is humility and witness: through our sins, as long as we recognize committing them, we are those who as well and the same way demonstrate and fairly show the love of God our forgiver. What does he say in his sermon?
“The Apostles went rejoicing we read, after their scourging from the sight of the Council, because they were found worthy for the name of Jesus to suffer insult; … Margaret Clitheroe as she went through York streets, to be pressed to death on Ouse Bridge, all along the road as best she could with her pinion hands dealing out alms to the poor, looked, it is said, so marvellously cheerful and happy that her murderers, like those Pharisees who of Christ her Master say that he cast out devils by Beelzebub, had nothing for it but to pretend she was possessed by a ‘merry devil’.”
Then comes the lesson, both on faith and consequently in our daily behaviour, says he to those poor people attending Sunday Mass:
a. “Love for Christ is enthusiasm for a leader, a hero, love for a bosom friend, love for a lover.”
b. We must not admire ourselves and pride ourselves, even on the good we ever do. Hopkins says, according to St. Paul’s Epistle: “we should leave that to him, he is proud enough of us. If we do well he smiles, he claps his hands over us; he is interested in our undertakings, he does not always grant them success, but he is more interested in them than we are…
c. “We must then take an interest in Christ, because he first took an interest in us; rejoice in him because he has the first rejoiced in us…” Just imagine one minute those people listening to such a lesson. It seems first almost unacceptable compared to their daily struggle for life and crash by hours and hours of exhausting work. But going back to that time under the new industrial rule ignoring the poor except exploiting them, here suddenly appears a young priest from the smart city of Oxford, able to say, almost with a kind of innocence, that they could be of interest for Jesus Christ. Hopkins simply delivers as a kind of a gamble: “If we do well he smiles, he claps his hands over us”: a statement a bit childish in a complicated theological explanation. Somehow, the humane mood of this simple belief confirms its both human and divine authenticity.
d. The structure of all Hopkins’ sermons is the same, a bit classical, like a real lesson of catechism or even theology, in a manner he was taught during his studies by the Jesuits:
i. Reading the text of the day from the scriptures,
ii. Explanation of the text,
ii. Example taken in a real situation supposed to be understandable of his brethren, here the Martyrdom of Margaret Clitheroe, a piece of history supposed to enlighten the actual situation,
Hopkins, in this poem, seeks the meaning, the message of this saint for the daily life of believers to-cay. He has always the same way of thinking: the sin, not the sinner, is to be rejected: for instance, in that region, alcoholism.
A full sermon is on alcoholism… In his long, long sermon dated November 30, 1879, first of Advent at St. Joseph’s Bedford, he dedicates the whole of his talk to what he calls a shameful practice “making the man a beast”. He continues: “it drowns noble reason, their eyes swim, etc.” The description is quite severe. Two pages of gloom. But it is most important to notice that he strikes on the sin as such, not on the sinner. Never on the sinner. He nonetheless adds the sinner’s face remains sad while the one who recognizes himself as a sinner and asks for Christ forgiveness has the face of the one who rejoices because of the comfort coming from the forgiver. Like Margaret Clitheroe.
Hopkins knows he may have such a language, because he knows that the people from that region are quite devout. He wants to uplift the listener. He tries to be simple, not all the way successfully, because of not being rooted in that human community, but he goes on trying his best to energise them to the cause of the Gospel.
In one of his meditations within the same period, he clearly states: “To give God glory and to mean to give it: to praise God freely, gladly to serve him, honour God, I was made for this, each one of us was made for this.” He would add: wherever you live and meet people, whoever your neighbour is. “For that I came”, says he in one of his poems.
The second theme is on Duns Scotus philosophy and theology on Incarnation and Beauty Through a deep reading of the sermons we discover that they are fully written, like pieces of literature; in kind of a true teaching and catechism, which from time to time might almost be held for true lectures of high level theology. Hopkins clearly knows and witnesses he has and plays an important, unavoidable role in Church as a priest and a preacher.
The main background of his sermons and spiritual developments is a deep sense of Incarnation: Jesus Christ came to us as real God and real man, he all along states. As a consequence, the person of the holy Virgin appears: mother giving birth to God and Man, and in such a way giving fresh air to the world of those who are condemned to the bloody consequences of the first sin.
As soon as 1872, fives years after his first joining the Jesuits, Hopkins reads the philosophy and theology of John Duns Scotus. He immediately finds himself in full affinity with the practical philosophy and theology of Scotus: primacy of love, affirmation of the beauty of each individual, full beauty of Jesus Christ in his face, spirit, inspiration, teachings.
“The intellect perfected by the habit of theology apprehends God as one who should be loved… Therefore, the habit of theology is practical.”
Hopkins admires Scotus and appreciates the practical characteristic of his theology. Also due to his active defence of the Immaculate Conception; he writes in his sermon dated December 5, 1879: “It is a comfort to think that the greatest of the divines and doctors of the Church who have spoken and written in favour of this truth came from England”.
I can’t resist such an interpretation, I’m sorry for this, also as a nice tackle unto the Church of England. This is my piece of over-interpretation. And there follows the long, long poem we all know and heard:
“Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-fixed
Snowflake; etc.” (3)
In his sermon, Hopkins continues: “What then were the great virtues [Christ] saw in her and so pleased him, which we too may see in her and please him by copying? – I suppose the two virtues she is most famous for are her purity and her humility.” Hopkins will explain in the same sermon how Scotus defended the affirmation of the Immaculate Conception in Paris.
According to Scotus’ theology, God is to be discovered, experienced, beloved through a deep contact with Creation. This is common to all obedient to the Franciscan movement, but also not so far from the Ignatian Exercises. Nature is sacred, nature is to be respected. To that extent and by the way, Hopkins is highly sensitive to the respect and preservation of Nature. He writes (3): “One day when the bluebells were in bloom I wrote the following. I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I
know the beauty of our Lord by it. It[s inscape] is [mixed of] strength and grace, like an ash [tree]. Touch this flower; put your fingers in these transparent waters,
“Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear,
Gallantry and grace” (4)
“How lovely the elder brother’s
Life all laced in the other’s” (5),
“Look at the stars, look, look up at the skies! …
This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.”
Give love to anybody crossing your way, says and teaches the preacher, and you will thus be touched by the love of God. You come to faith not through a series of logical rational deductions but by an immediate contact with, touch, feeling of the world: the world as a gift from God, true sign of the presence of God through the personal presence of Jesus Christ. This is the central, essential thinking and belief of Hopkins more ore less, more than less
crossing his sermons from part to part all through. In such a mood and relation to Nature, the poet is more than well prepared to enter the inscape of Scotus’ philosophy.
The sense of inscape is, primarily, the inner nature of an object, human being, animal, plant or even piece of art, animate or inanimate, and the physically visible outer characteristics by which it reveals God.
On August 7, 1882, after the sermon period envisaged here, in one of his spiritual writings, he develops his theology: “God’s utterance of himself in himself is God the Word, outside himself in this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God.” (7)
Inscape is a deep religious concept with a sacramental view of the world in which Christ’s Incarnation is the summation of all and gives evidence to the world as the sacramental presence of the Lord. The theology of Scotus emphasises Jesus Christ as the “consummation” of the physical order. Inscape leads to and reaches complete fulfilment in Christ, in whom immediate sensitive experience becomes spiritual.
The core of Hopkins’ theological development after his reading Scotus appears in his journals describing his “flush with a new stroke of enthusiasm.” He continues by these words: “It may come to nothing or it may be a mercy from God. But just then when I took in any inscape of the sky or sea I thought of Scottus.” (8) Therefore comes his enthusiasm as such as:
“The world is charged with the Grandeur of God…
It gathers to a greatness …
And for all this, nature is never spent; …” (9)
“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am at once what Christ is, / since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor postherd, / patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.” (10)
As well in his sermon at Bedford Leigh dated 23rd November 1879 he states: "Our Lord Jesus Christ is our hero…, he is the most lovely and loveable we ever met. His body was the most beautiful." (11)
3- Thirdly, the theme of finger of God: Law, Care and Cure. The Gospel is full of images and actions of Jesus Christ in direct connection with the finger of God. In the Old Testament it is directly linked to the action of the God of the Jews during the 7 calamities sent to the Egyptians to force them to let the Hebrew people go. The prophet says to Pharaoh: this is the finger of God, what means: you will experience the unavoidable image of God’s powering full action. The finger is considered as a main sign of power. When Moses goes to Sinai, he receives the Table of the Law, with the Ten Commandments. The old Jewish and Christian tradition shows the Lord reading the law with his finger. You meet a relief of such a practice in the actual liturgical reading of the Torah within the Jewish celebration in the Synagogue using that silver stick topped by a finger. Lots of cosmologists as well as artists see (or imagine) some natural signs as the finger of God in the skies or in Nature: thunder-flashes, tornadoes, mountain-picks, etc. Also how could we forget the admirable two fingers searching each other in a certain distance, paint by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Also think of Leonardo’s painting, John the Baptist’s finger pointing the Heavens, saying “I’m not the one”.
The finger of God is a true symbol crossing all the Scriptures. Jesus Christ uses his fingers in a fully other sense. We are in the streets of Jerusalem. A demonstration happens around a women just condemned by the finger of the judge or high priest to lapidation because of adultery commitment. Some of the people recognise that man who speaks in synagogues. They ask him: what would you do against this woman in such a situation? No answer: he silently writes something in sand with his finger. His answer will come after: “the one who never committed a sin throw the first stone”.
Now follows the poem:
“… What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – …” (12)
Totally different again is he second situation, when he listens, takes care, cures and opens. His finger cures by opening. This is what Hopkins will so well describe and comment in his sermon dated Aug. 17, 1879 in Oxford. The Gospel of the day is the Cure of the Deaf and Dumb Man according to Mark chap. Vii, verse 31-36. The man is brought to Jesus to be cured; Jesus puts his finger in his own mouth to take some spittle, then puts his finger into the ear of the man and onto his tongue, telling one word, only one word: Ephphetha: Be opened.
“Ephphetha, be opened: never a word without a sign, never a sign without a word: the man goes away; his mouth and ear are opened by a drop of spittle put from finger on tongue and in ear by somebody the man never met before, called by his disciples Rabbi: both master and beloved father. (13)
Hopkins’ comment will be short. He brings 2 main lessons:
1. “Those things which are said to be done by the Lord’s arm are God’s works of power; those by his finger are the subtle workings of his wisdom.”
2. “They admired the completeness and delicacy of the cure. Much more, he adds, should we admire what Christ has done for us – made us deaf hear, if we will hear, not with a touch of his fingertips but with his hands hard nailed out and appealingly stretched on the cross; made us dumb speak in praise and prayer to God not by a moistening of spittle but by a shedding of all his precious blood…”
Now let’s go to the poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, written about 4 years earlier. You will find the exact same belief structure:
The finger of God, sign of his presence to be found even at this very moment of a wreck; a sign of power on earth and sea; also a sign of terror:
“Thou mastering me
God! Giver of breath and bread; …
… what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee...” (14)
Note that nowadays, the trainings given to health professionals dealing with dependant and ill patients clearly indicate never to touch somebody without asking for authorisation. In my experience with disabled persons who are dependant it comes quite clear: I never do any gesture without giving a word of solicitude or comfort. This is a very basic consideration to take on board by all those who pretend to take care of their equals.
The nuns on board, near to death, are calling Christ to cure and calm the winds. This is the exact sense of the poet’s prayer:
“ … lovely-felicitous Providence,
Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the
Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back! …” (15)
Christ’s finger is here designed for delicacy, tenderness, peace in the womb of a young mother … No further comment. Words speak by themselves. Only my very last question: where is the poet? Where is the preacher? Both in the same person: Gerard Manley Hopkins.
1. Letter to Watsoon Dixon October 24, 1879.
2. Margaret Clitheroe is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales A young married woman, she was arrested for harbouring Jesuits . She refused to speak in her own defence and was condemned and was crushed to death in York on March 25 th 1586. Elziabeth 1st was shocked by what she described as ‘the assassination of a young beauty.’ St. Margaret Clitheroe was canonized by Pope Paul V1 in 1970.
3. Journals, Aug. 3, 1872.
4 .The Golden Echo.
6 . The Starlight Night.
7 Spiritual writings, p. 129.
8 Journals, p. 221.
9 God’s Grandeur.
10 That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of Resurrection.
11 Sermons p. 35.
12. From the poem As kingfishers catch fire …
15. Stanza No 31.