Hopkins Lectures 2015

The Man from Petrograd: Bridges and Hopkins’ Poems of 1918

William Adamson University of Ulm Germany


At the end of the first week of September, 1917, Robert Bridges wrote to Mrs. Manley Hopkins, Gerard Hopkins’ mother: “I have had lately some very authoritative appeals for the robert bridgespublication of all Gerard’s poetical remains. The ‘Spirit of Man’(1) has had a wide sale, and his poems in it have commanded a good deal of attention.” He goes on to relate how that very afternoon he had met a man just arrived from Petrograd who “was very urgent about having a complete edition.”(2) Just who this man was and how he came to know of Hopkins and read his poetry remains a mystery, but he obviously made a forceful impression upon Bridges, and it is tempting to think that Bridges’ use of “urgent” might not be a euphemism for justifiably stronger terms after twenty-nine years of a manifestly indifferent approach to the printing of the poems. Indeed, Robert Bridges’ apparent grudging interest in the publication of Hopkins’ poetry was for too many years neither very deep nor very serious. He seems to have taken possession of Gerard’s verse, dealing with it in a cavalier manner: at best careless and at worst controlling, and the truth is that although it was Bridges who eventually completed the task of publishing Hopkins’ collected poetic works in 1918, he had done conspicuously little in the intervening years since his friend’s death to make the poetry accessible to the reading public.

Wasteland: Waiting for the Man from Petrograd

Gerard Hopkins died in Dublin on June 8th 1889. Shortly after, Bridges wrote to Father Thomas Wheeler, who had been superintending Hopkins’ care, to request that his letters to Gerard be returned. This was done, Father Wheeler writing to Bridges that Hopkins had given instructions for all his poems, diaries and notebooks to be placed into the hands of either his family or Bridges himself. Thus Bridges became de facto the literary executer of Hopkins’ verse, a bitter irony considering that he seems to have felt at the time that Hopkins’ poetry was not suitable for public consumption. (3) His comments in a postscript to a letter written in 1889 to Canon Dixon, a poet and long-time correspondent of Hopkins, provide us with a possible key to his apparent reluctance to publish his friend’s poetry; he writes: That dear Gerard was overworked, unhappy and would never have done anything great seems to give no solace. But how much worse it would have been had his promise or performance been more splendid. He seems to have been entirely lost and destroyed, by those Jesuits. (4) There is no attempt at embellishment: Bridges is clearly stating that Hopkins’ poetry was at best mediocre and would never improve; our consolation, however, is that mediocrity is no great loss. Yet despite this singular lack of anything positive to say, by the August of the same year Bridges was planning to print privately a selection of his friend’s poems and a memoir of him with the publisher C.H. Daniel. He writes to Dixon that: “I have proposed to edit some of his verses – Daniel to print them – with a short memorial of him” (5) To Daniel himself he wrote,

I am requested to write a memoir of Father Gerard Hopkins, to be printed with a selection from his poems. […] I should fancy there might be about 40 pages of verse – lyrical – and I cannot tell how long the memoir is likely to be, but certainly not so much as this. It will be a unique volume, privately printed only, but I think that need not exclude you having a few copies for private sale […]. (6)

Bridges obviously had no intention of making Hopkins available to the general public. However, his intentions seem to have been genuine as in October 1889 he even provided Daniel with a “scheme for the book”:

1. Title

2. Portrait, aet. 38*

3. Memoir pp i-xlviii.

4. Early poems as part of and same type as memoir. pp. xlix-lx.

5. Portrait aet. 20*

6. Title of poems and poems 1-50pp.

6.B a long note by G.H. on his own poems 51-55

7. Facsimile of handwriting*

8. Reproductions of Studies* (7)

Despite this, there are already signs that Bridges is beginning to put Hopkins on the long finger: “About Gerard Hopkins’ memoir” he writes in the same letter, “I shall not have anything written till after Xmas.”(8) This assertion is repeated in a second letter written three days later where he adds, “[…] and perhaps not till the end of January – and I cannot be sure of it then”. (9) Indeed the idea, at least of a memoir, seems to be rapidly fading. Following this, very little is said until the end of May 1890, almost a year after Hopkins’ death, when Bridges writes to Mrs Hopkins regarding Gerard’s letters. It is only at the very end of the communication that any reference is made to the poetry, Bridges suggesting that if he “could make the occasion [he] would introduce some of Gerard’s verse into the notes of that book [Bridges’ own new volume] and see if the critics noticed it.”(10) But then in August he writes again to Mrs Hopkins:

I asked you about printing a poem or two of his in my new volume, coming out in October. I intended to bring them into the notes at the end of the book, but now, for irresistible reasons. I have given up the notion of notes, and with them the poems. (11 )

The publisher Daniel has, however, not lost interest, and tells Bridges that he is prepared to print up to 150 copies of selected poems by Hopkins for family and friends, “and the rest” as Bridges writes to Mrs Hopkins, “for private sale among interested outsiders”. The memoir has been give up, but as an alternative Bridges suggests that he might write a short preface “which should put the poems out of the reach of criticism.” For such, apparently, is the power of Bridges’ prefaces. The following passage from the same letter must be quoted at length:

I should myself prefer the postponement of the poems till the memoir is written, or till I have got my own method of prosody recognised separately from Gerard’s. They are the same, […], but he has used it so as to discredit it : and it would be a bad start in favour for the practice we both advocated and wished to be used. Readers would not see that the peculiarities of his versification were not part of his metrical system, but a freakishness corresponding to his odd choice of words etc. in which also his theories were as sound as his practice was strange. In this I am not considering myself, but the prospect of introducing this new way of writing, in which if there is any reputation to come to him, it will be from the recognition of the principles [of prosody] which I think his own verse would damage. […] A year or 18 months is all the delay which I expect will be necessary for this […]. (12)

This cannot be allowed to stand. Prosody, as we know, is simply the rhythm and pattern of sounds of poetry and language, or more specifically the study of versification, and in particular the systematic study of metrical structure. Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” is the complex and very technically involved system of metrics he established, and although Bridges did experiment with it, he can by no stretch of the imagination lay equal claim to it. To refer to “freakishness” and “odd choice of words” yet again reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of both Hopkins and his poetry. His final statement that Hopkins’ verse would “damage” the principles of prosody exposes the philistine attitude of a man guided by utilitarian principles, at worse ignorant and at best disdainful of the artistic essence of Hopkins’ poetry, the publication of which is deferred for a further “year or 18 months.”

In 1893, however, it would appear that Bridges is at last making some sort of effort. He writes to Mrs Hopkins that he has been in touch with the editor of the The Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, Alfred Miles, who is willing to print a selection of Hopkins’ poetry. He writes: “I really now hope that Gerard will at last get the recognition which he knew he deserved.” However, the poems are to be accompanied by a notice which, as he bluntly tells Hopkins’ parents, he has written “in the humour that the reader has a right to know certain facts, and these I tell him as shortly as may be”, continuing “Gerard’s failure and melancholy seem to me essentials”, before stating that the editor may well “shy at them as everybody else has done.”(13)

And so in 1893, a limited selection (14) of Hopkins’ Poetry – along with the notice – is at long last published, though Canon Dixon did criticise Bridges for being too severe in his comments, referring specifically to the final sentence of the notice where Bridges writes that the poems “miss some of the first essentials of beauty, which are attainable by all poetry alike”. Bridges did amend the sentence,(15) but appears overall to have been unrepentant, and indeed in a letter to Gerard’s mother written in October 1893 even writes that one critic had gone out of his way to “praise my notice.” I would like to quote one letter written by Bridges at the end of January 1896, again to Mrs Hopkins, on Gerard’s music, which – if we simply substitute the word music for poetry – reveals much about Bridges’ attitude towards the lyrical works of his long-time friend. He writes: “In your letter you said you had a parcel of scraps of Gerard’s music, and asked me if I should like to look through them.” He then continues:

I should of course very much like to see them, and shall hope to do so some day when I am at Haslemere again, […], but unless you may have any particular reason for sending them I am sure that I have not time just now to enter into their subtleties. Gerard had a notion of starting music [poetry], as everything else, on new lines, and I cannot without great difficulty follow his intentions so as to do them justice. Honestly I think that his ingenious inventions do not lead to anything, and I have not myself the delicacy of ear to fully understand them. (16)

We might find this last remark of Bridge’s difficult to gainsay. In 1899 another of Hopkins’ poems, “Thee, God, I come from, to thee go”, is published in Henry Charles Beeching’s anthology entitled Lyra sacra: a Book of Religious Verse. Then in 1901 the poem “A Prayer” appears in A Book of Simple Prayers, produced by Bridges’ mother-in-law, Mrs Waterhouse. A second poem, “Heaven Haven”, is published the following year in A Little Book of Life and Death, also selected and arranged by Mrs Waterhouse.

Against the odds, interest in Hopkins’ poetry is now growing. (17) In January 1909, the American writer Katherine Bregy publishes her article “Gerard Hopkins: an Epitaph and an Appreciation” in the Catholic World. Bridges sent a copy of this to Hopkins’ mother without message or comment of any sort, which she then duly returned to him. Acknowledging receipt in his next letter to her, Bridges is dismissive of both the writer of the article, the magazine itself, and indeed Catholics in general:

I do not even know the name of the writer, nor had I ever heard of the Magazine. The Catholics are very hard up for any literary interests, and are glad enough to make something of Gerard’s work. (18)

In 1909 there is talk of the poet and critic Edmund Gosse editing Gerard’s poems, and Bridges is swift to respond, discrediting Gosse with glaring irony as “incompetent” and unable to “recognise the merits of Gerard’s verse.” He regards the whole idea as being “merely in the scheme of ‘booming’ Roman Catholic pretensions to artistic eminence”. (19) It seems plausible that Bridges was deliberately pursuing a policy of obfuscation, making access to Hopkins’ poetry as difficult as possible.

In 1909 Father Joseph Keating, one of Hopkins’ greatest admirers within the Jesuits, wrote to Bridges asking for a collection of his poetry “as a distinct and valuable addition to the literary heritage of the Catholic Church”. (20) Bridges’ reply, quoted in the The Month, a monthly review which for almost all of its history was owned by the English Province of the Society of Jesus and edited by its members, is damning to Hopkins, but more so to himself:

I do not think that the peculiar qualities which rendered [the poems] unintelligible and distasteful (and, therefore, practically unknown) to his contemporaries would find much favour now. […] The attention which his memory has lately received – which must be traced to Mr Miles’ book – is easily accounted for, since in literary circles it is common to demand anything that is withheld. (21)

To Mrs Hopkins he wrote in May 1909: “I do not think that Gerard would have wished his poems to be edited by a committee of those fellows”,(22) and then five months later: “I certainly should not trust the Reverend Father with anything of importance –”. (23)

Despite Bridges’ best efforts, a demand for Hopkins’ poetry and a long-awaited edition of his collected verse was increasing, not only in England, but in America, too, where in 1914 the poet and Catholic convert Joyce Kilmer was calling Hopkins the “most scrupulous word-artist of the nineteenth century”, and describing his verse as “successions of lovely images, each a poem in itself”. (24)

At almost exactly the same time, by contrast, Bridges is referring to Hopkins as “a very accurate hair-splitting analyst and grammarian.” (25) Writing to Francis Brett Young in October 1914, Bridges again establishes (in somewhat haughty tone) his control over Hopkins’ verse, and once more refuses general access to his collected work:

But as to Gerard Hopkins, I am his literary executor, and a lot of people want his poetry to be published. It is owing to me that what of it is known is known. […] But the main objection to publishing is the very difficult and unpopular nature of the work. What I have printed are just the very few things that people would stand […], and a further revelation of him would provoke only adverse criticism and ridicule. (26)

Things, however, are slowly coming to a head. In 1916 Bridges publishes his anthology The Spirit of Man, in which he has, as he states, “put in a good many of Gerard’s poems”, (27) it is in fact six, but nevertheless leaving out what he refers to as “a queer sonnet” which he thought “would overbalance the reader’s toleration for that author [Hopkins].” (28) The anthology was positively reviewed, Bridges writing to Mrs Hopkins that “It is very satisfactory to me that Gerard’s poems should be received so well.” (29) One reviewer commented perspicaciously of Hopkins that: “He is little known; but he was one of the most original of modern poets.” (30)

Enter The Man from Petrograd

On that early autumn afternoon in September 1917, Robert Bridges is waylaid by our man just arrived back from Petrograd. Whether he is in Oxford specifically to put his case for a collected edition of Hopkins’ poetry, or whether the occasion is simply fortuitous, is unknown. He is, in all events, “very urgent about having a complete edition.” In the grip of an epiphany, Bridges immediately rushes home and startles poor Mrs Hopkins by writing to her: “I think the time has come to publish all the poems.” He then states that the Oxford University Press will “probably take the book if it is offered to them,” adding pompously, “[…] and I would allow the Americans to have an edition of their own.”(31) One week later he writes to Gerard’s sister Kate that he is pleased her mother is “agreeable to the notion of getting Gerard’s poems published. [she has, after all, only been waiting for twenty-nine years.] Indeed the idea is that every scrap that he wrote should be published.” (Smelling salts are called for to revive a swooning Miss Hopkins). Enlightened, Bridges continues that there “is a strong feeling that any thing by him would be interesting.”(32) Suddenly Bridges is all action. “I must write and tell you that I am now more than half through the editing of Gerard’s poems”, he writes to Mrs Hopkins in January 1918, continuing:

It is, I need not say, a very absorbing piece of work: and keeps me constantly in his company. There is a real demand for the book, and the Oxford Press wants it as soon as possible. […] I cannot say what happiness it is to have one’s long patience at last rewarded. (33)

If nothing else, Bridges was a master of unconscious irony; he continues in his next letter to tell her that he is “indeed glad that your life has been so prolonged, and hope that you will have the pleasure of handling Gerard’s book.” Nonetheless, all continues well, despite “Gerard’s perpetual amendations and corrections”, but luckily for us Bridges is, as he tells us, “very seldom in any doubt.” (34)

To Kate Hopkins he writes: “I am getting on with Gerard’s book, and I think it promises very well.” (35) And to Lionel Muirhead (an old school friend), one day later, that “[t]he book will be a great success, and it is as interesting as it is troublesome to do; which is saying very much.” (36) Then in February 1918, after almost thirty years of stalling, Bridges seems to have achieved a minor miracle:

I have finished the editing of Gerard Hopkins’ poems – but I suppose it may be some months before the Press gets the book out. – I am quite elated – becoz [sic] I knew it was a difficult job, and expected to be 3 months over it: however I stuck to it, and worked 7 or 8 hours a day – doing nothing else; and, though I must have had some 5 blank days (37) I got through it in exactly 4 weeks. (38)

However, Bridges still has reservations. “[Y]ou will remember”, he writes to Gerard’s sister Kate in February 1918, that the poems will disclose the fact that Gerard suffered dreadfully from a sort of melancholy – and I do not think there would be any advantage in not recognising this – besides I should judge it a good thing to tell the truth about, and show that medievalizing does not always produce complete ease of mind. (39)

There are two comments I’d like to make regarding this. Firstly, it seems to me that Bridges is probably more concerned with protecting himself against any unfavourable response to the poems, for which he will hold Gerard’s “melancholy” responsible; secondly, the term “medievalizing” can be read as a reference to the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the Jesuits in particular. Indeed, Bridges is obsessed with the Jesuits, and in a letter to Lionel Muirhead, written some eight weeks after that quoted above to Kate, he writes that he has “composed a eulogistic sonnet wherein I give the Jesuits a smite in the face, the line is ‘Thy fine ill-brokered talent in disdain’”. (40)

Surely to leave a friend’s poetry mouldering for nigh on thirty years, or as Bridges himself states in the same sonnet: “And thy lov’d legacy, Gerard, hath lain / Coy in my home”, (41) is more an example of both bad brokering and disdain. In another letter, to the poet A.E. Housman, he refers to Gerard as being “rotted with melancholy” having become “a Jesuit very foolishly”, and “being a patriot [not able] to stomach the treason of his spiritual associates and directors.” Bridges’ antipathy for the Order verges on the obsessional, and in yet another letter to Kate Hopkins, referring to some private manuscript notes made by Gerard, he writes: “[…] they are a valuable and unimpeachable testimony to the mental trouble that he suffered from being obliged to witness the disloyal plotting of his Society in Ireland.” (42) With direct reference to Bridges, Father Joseph Keating, who as I have mentioned corresponded with him advocating the publication of Hopkins’ poetry, wrote in a review of the firsts edition of Hopkins’ letters to Bridges in 1935 that:

The Society cannot, nor can Catholics as a body, be wholly satisfied with the result of the labours of these various zealous non-Catholics, and that for a fundamental reason, […]. The fact is, they do not share the Faith of their subject, they regard it as unsound and erroneous, they are more or less hostile to it, they resent its interference with his poetic work, and so, not understanding or appreciating it, they cannot fully understand or appreciate him. Dr Bridges, his lifelong and intimate friend, [has] not been able to penetrate into the soul of Father Hopkins, […]. (43)

This is a plausible assessment of the problem; it is precisely because Bridges could not understand Hopkins the priest, that he could not understand Hopkins the poet – indeed, in a letter to Kate Hopkins he is still talking of having to “justify”(44) himself in his preface to the notes. However, from here on in things flow relatively smoothly. In March, Bridges receives the first proofs, which he is still busy revising in August, telling Mrs Hopkins that the book will be ready in September. Then in October he writes to Kate Hopkins that “the book is now complete, and I suppose they are already printing at it. It promises to look very well.”(45) His concern for the book’s appearance is no doubt laudable, but his concerns for the contents appear less so: “I am rather fearful that ‘The Editor’s preface to the Notes’ may seem at first somewhat severely critical”, he writes to Gerard’s sister Grace, continuing “you will no doubt understand the wisdom of leaving the critics nothing to say”. (46)

In December Bridges writes to his sister (Mrs F.C. Glover):

This morning had the first copy of my edition of Gerard Hopkin’s [sic] poems. It has turned out a very beautiful book, very much what we intended, but the struggle to get it done as we wished entailed more patience that I could have practised if Monica [Bridges’ wife] had not worked steadily at it with me all through. And now it is done the Oxford Press will get the credit of it. (47)

In the end we have to ask ourselves what the real cause of Bridges’ procrastination was. Was it really simply the daunting task of sifting and editing through the manuscripts of Hopkins’ poems with their many drafts and emendations? Was this the “struggle to get it done” he refers to? Or was it something more akin to professional jealously and a sense of his own inadequacy? The tendentious implication that alone he would not have had the patience to perform this last duty for his friend smacks of insincerity, and his final, rather resentful, remark that “the Oxford Press will get the credit of it” is pure begrudgery. Perhaps our real thanks should go to the Man from Petrograd.


1 An anthology of verse edited by Robert Bridges: The Spirit of Man: An Anthology 1916.

2 Donald E. Stanford (ed.) The Selected Letters of Robert Bridges, vol. 2 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984). 755: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, September 7, 1917.

3 Bridges was not alone in this view. Coventry Patmore wrote to Bridges that “I, as one of his friends, should protest against any attempt to share him with the public.” Coventry Patmore to Robert Bridges, 12 August 1889, quoted in: Jean-Georges Ritz, Robert Bridges and Gerard Hopkins 1863.1889: A Literary Friendship (London: Oxford University Press, 1960) p. 158.

4 Donald E. Stanford (ed.) The Selected Letters of Robert Bridges, Vol. 1 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983). 107: To Richard Watson Dixon, June 14, 1889.

5 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 1. 106: To Richard Watson Dixon, August 10, 1889

6 Ibid. 107: To Charles Henry Daniel, August 20, 1889.

7 The asterisks refer to illustrations and reproductions.

8 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 1. 109: To C.H. Daniel Oct. 11 1889.

9 Ibid. 110: To C.H. Daniel Oct. 14, [1889].

10 Ibid. 124: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, May 28, 1890.

11 Ibid. 128: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, August 4, 1890.

12 Ibid. 128: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, August 4, 1890.

13 Ibid. 174: To Mrs Manley Hopkins February 24, 1893.

14 The poems appeared in Alfred H. Miles (ed.), The Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century (London: 1893) pp 161-4. They were “A Vision of the Mermaids” (part), “The Habit of Perfection”, “The Starlight Night”, “Spring”, “The Candle Indoors”, “Spring and Fall”, “Inversnaid”, and predictably “To R.B.” 14 Although in truth the revised version is not much better, Bridges writing that the poems “[…] show a neglect of those canons of taste, which seem common to all poetry.”

15 Stanford, (ed.), op. cit., vol. 1. 256: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, January 29, 1896.

16 In October 1906 Alfred H. Miles’ The Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century was reprinted with Bridges’ selection of Hopkins’ poems from the earlier 1893 edition, and with notes on Hopkins and his poetry by Bridges. Then in September 1908 Bridges is asked permission to reprint some of the poetry.

17 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 562: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, January 21, 1909.

18 Ibid. 567: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, March 28, 1909.

19 The Month, July 1909, p. 60 (edited by John Gerard and published in London by the English Province of the Society of Jesus).

20 Quoted in: The Month, February 1935, p. 126.

21 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 571: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, May 7, 1909.

23 Ibid. 573: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, October 11, 1909.

24 Joyce Kilmer in: Poetry, September 1914, pp. 241-5.

25 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 686: To Brett Young, October 4, [1914].

26 Ibid. 686: To Brett Young, October 4, [1914].

27 Ibid. 749: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, January 18, 1916.

28 Ibid. 752: To Henry Newbolt, February 11, [1916]. Bridges, unfortunately, does not tell us to which sonnet he is referring.

29 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 753: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, April 26, 1916.

30 Unsigned review, New Statesman February 5th, 1916.

31 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 775: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, September 7, 1917.

32 Ibid. 776: To Kate Hopkins, September 13, 1917.

33 Ibid. 784: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, January 14, [1918].

34 Ibid. 785: To Mrs Manley Hopkins, January 20, [1918].

35 Ibid. 787: To Kate Hopkins, January 28, [1918].

36 Ibid. 789: To Lionel Muirhead, January 29, 1918.

37 We might be pardoned for thinking the five blank days to be an underestimation of overwhelming proportion; given the time lapse between Hopkins’ death and publication, a more sober reckoning would be almost ten thousand.

38 Ibid. 791: To Logan Pearsall Smith, February 16, [1918]

39 Ibid. 792: To Kate Hopkins, February 18, [1918].

40 Ibid. 801: To Lionel Muirhead, April 18, 1918.

41 The sonnet appears at the beginning of the author’s preface to the 1918 “Poems”.

42 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 818: To Kate Hopkins, November 28, 1918.

43 Fr Joseph Keating, review, The Month, February 1935, pp. 125-36, in: Gerald Roberts (ed.) Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 2013) p. 302.

44 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 805: To Kate Hopkins, May 18, [1918].

45 Stanford (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2. 816: to Kate Hopkins, October 14 1918.

46 Ibid. 821: to Grace Hopkins, December 14, [1918].

47 Ibid. 819: To Mrs FC Glover, December 8, 1918. Literature: Donald E. Stanford (ed.) The Selected Letters of Robert Bridges, Vol. 1 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983).


Donald E. Stanford (ed.) The Selected Letters of Robert Bridges, Vol. 2 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984). Gerald Roberts (ed.), Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 2013). Jean-Georges Ritz, Robert Bridges and Gerard Hopkins 1863-1889: A Literary Friendship (London: Oxford University Press, 1960).


William Adamson contributed an earlier lectures to Hopkins Festival 2013 entitlted Robert Bridges and Gerard Hopkins Read here.



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