Hopkins Archive 1987 - 95

First published in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995)

Saint Patrick and Hopkins: at a Third Remove

Ernest Ferlita SJ, Loyola University, New Orleans, LA., USA.

There is no doubt that Hopkins was devoted to St Patrick, admired him greatly and thought highly of his Confession and of the hymn or prayer formerly attributed to him, known as `The Breastplate of St Patrick' . Echoes of both these works, especially the Confession, are to be found, I suggest, in some of his poems.

The first clear evidence of Hopkins' devotion is found in his Meditation Points for the Feast of St Patrick, March 17, 1884. He had arrived in Ireland that same year, just one month before. These `points', written on the night of March 16 for meditation the following morning, are the next to the last of some thirty entries made `in odd places of a large thin exercise-book, referred to as "the Dublin Notebook", which he used mostly for the correcting and marking of examination papers' . Here is what he writes:

March 17 St Patrick - Recommend first to God the whole course of his life, thanking God for the way he is glorified in him; his exile and sufferings, his piety and patience; his selfsacrifice and zeal; his miracles and success. Consider his hymn: it breathes an enthusiasm which as far as feeling goes I feel but my action does not answer to this. Ask his help for Ireland in all its needs and for yourself in your position .

Two days after his arrival in Ireland he had written about this `position' of his to Cardinal Newman:

I am writing from where I never thought to be, in a University begun under your leadership, which has since those days indeed long and unhappily languished, but for which we now with God's help hope a continuation or restoration of success. In the events which have brought me here I recognize the hand of providence, but nevertheless have felt and feel an unfitness which led me at first to try to decline the offer made me and now does not yet allow my spirits to rise to the level of the position and its duties. But perhaps the things of most promise with God begin with weakness and fear.

Given his position and the unfitness he felt in relation to it, Hopkins no doubt asked St Patrick more than once for help. As an Englishman, he was clearly drawn to St Patrick because Patrick was a native of Britain, or more precisely, of Wales, in what Hopkins called the `loveable West', even though born there before it became part of Britain. And now, like St Patrick, Hopkins found himself in Ireland, the only English Jesuit assigned that year to the Irish province, at a time when Englishmen were not particularly welcome. Not that in this remove he never experienced `kind love'. Towards the end of the year he wrote his mother:

We have enemies here - indeed what is Ireland but an open or secret war of fierce enmities of every sort? - and our College is really struggling for existence with difficulties within and without; nevertheless I believe we shall weather, for no other reason than that Fr Delany (S.J., president of University College) has such a buoyant and unshaken trust in God and wholly lives for the success of the place. He is as generous, cheering, and openhearted a man as I ever lived with. And the rest of the community give me almost as much happiness, but in particular Robert Curtis (S.J., professor of natural science), elected Fellow with me, whom I wish that by some means you could someday see, for he is my comfort beyond what I can say and a kind of godsend I never expected to have.

About a year later, in December 1885, he wrote to his brother Everard that he had `friends at Donnybrook, so hearty and kind that nothing can be more so' (HRB 4, 1973,13). And of course there were the Cassidys of Monasterevan, where `in spite of the severe cold' he spent `some very pleasant days' he told his mother, `at Xmas and again at New Year and it was a happy acquaintance to make, for they made no secret of liking me and want me to go down again' , though in his next letter to her he said he wished he `had never written that silly letter about the people of Monasterevan liking me': it reminded him of a character in Edwin Drood and his tombstone to his wife and how in the course of his life he had not met a woman who appreciated him as she did .

Those letters to his mother were written in January and February 1887. One might think that by this time he was feeling more at home among the Irish. but that same February, on the 17th, he wrote to Bridges: `Tomorrow morning I shall have been three years in Ireland, three hard wearying wasting wasted years'. But `out of Ireland', he adds, `I shd. be no better, rather worse probably', blaming it on his lack of `a working health, a working strength'. Then after commenting on the political situation, he refers to the Irish as `a people without a principle of civil disobedience at all' and `a people without a principle of allegiance' . Around the same time he must have written a letter expressing similar sentiments to Cardinal Newman because, though we don't have Hopkins' letter, Newman replied on March 3,

`Your letter is an appalling one - but not on that account untrustworthy. There is one consideration however which you omit. The Irish Patriots hold that they have never yielded themselves to the sway of England and therefore have never been under her laws, and have never been rebels'. He added: `If I were an Irishman, I should be (in heart) a rebel'.

`Wearying wasting wasted years'. Yet during this time he had written what up till then was in his estimation `the longest sonnet ever made' , the brilliant `Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves', also `Caradoc's Soliloquy', richly poetic and highly dramatic and 71 lines in length, as well as the six dark sonnets. But the sonnets were, after all, only poetry and therefore `unprofessional', as far as he was concerned, and the soliloquy was just a fragment of a larger work. He bemoans the fact that he is `unable, with whatever encouragement, to go on with Winefred (the play for which Caradoc's soliloquy was written) or anything else' . Even as late as 1889, the year of his death, he is still bemoaning this fact: it is achingly expressed in the poem `Thou art indeed Just, Lord', which he dates March 17, St Patrick's Day.

See, banks and brakes
Now, leaved how thick, laced they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build-but not I build; no, but strain,
Times' eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

One of the larger works that Hopkins would have considered `professional' was the editing of St Patrick's Confession. See how highly he thought of it in what he says to Bridges in the late summer of 1884: `I am hoping myself to publish a new and critical edition of St Patrick's "Confession", a work worthy to rank (except for length) with St Austin's Confessions and the Imitation and more like St Paul and the Catholic epistles than anything else I know, unless perhaps St Clement of Rome' . This is not the first time he had expressed such a hope. When did he first get the idea? We can't be certain, but there is reason to think that it was earlier than we might imagine. We have four letters to him from Dr John Rhys, an Oxford professor of Celtic Studies, who was in Rhyl on the coast of Wales not far from St Beuno's in the summer of 1877, Hopkins' last year of theology and the year of his ordination. On April 23, 1886, Dr Rhys writes that he is very glad to hear from Hopkins `as I had completely lost sight of you'. Then, after writing at considerable length about his lectures and articles, there is this arresting sentence: `I wish you could return to your old idea of editing the Confession of St Patrick' .
His `old idea'. How old? Since there is no correspondence that we know of between 1877 and 1886 and since Rhys says he had completely lost sight of Hopkins, it seems very likely that Hopkins spoke to him of this idea when he visited Rhys at his home in Rhyl. This would mean that Hopkins' admiration for St Patrick and his works was there before he arrived in Ireland, even though all his own references belong to his Irish period, unless we include a brief entry in his Journal for August 1872 when he saw on the Isle of Man `a red chapel (with herringbone work) and round tower nearly perfect ascribed to St Patrick (444) or if he was never in the island connected with his mission' . I say this because Hopkins' express admiration was not only for the Confession but also for St Patrick's `Breastplate' - twice he sent Bridges a copy from Ireland: `I enclose something very beautiful and almost unique' ; then, two years later, forgetting he had already sent it: `Did I ever send you St Patrick's "Breastplate" or prayer? I do now at all events. Read it and say if it is not one of the most remarkable compositions of man' . And there is an echo of `Breastplate' in one of his undated sonnets. I would like to discuss this possible relationship before proceeding to the more certain relationship of the Confession to two sonnets of the Irish period.

The sonnet is not only undated but untitled; it is known by its first line, `As kingfisher catch fire, dragonflies draw flame'. There is no mention of the poem in any of his letters to Bridges, nor did he ever send him a copy. Scholars `had associated this celebrated sonnet with Hopkins' tertianship (October 1881 to August 1882), when he was immersed in the Spiritual Exercises', but in his splendid 1990 edition of Hopkins' Poetical Works, Norman H. Mackenzie, judging from an evolution he noticed in the layout of Hopkins' sonnets, `their patterns of indentation and line-spacing' places it in the Spring of 1877, his last year at St Bueno's . I would concur, because it is consistent with the possible echoes of St Patrick's `Breastplate' to be found therein and St Patrick's works, as I have attempted to show, were on his mind at that time.

The pertinent lines from `Breastplate' are these:
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

The echo, of course, is in these lines of Hopkins: The `just man', he says,

Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ. For 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.

The twice-repeated expression `God's eye' occurs also in an earlier verse of `Breastplate'. Now there is no question but that the thought expressed here is common enough in Christian writing. MacKenzie suggests sayings derived from St Catherine of Siena and from St Alphonsus Rodriquez. He also mentions St Patrick's `Breastplate' . If the echo is from any of these writings, I, of course, am inclined to say it would be `Breastplate' - `Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ . . .lovely in eyes not his . . .' echoing `Christ in every eye that sees me'.

Coming back to St Patrick's Confession, although Hopkins never did bring out `a new and critical edition', echoes of the work are definitely to be found in one, and perhaps two, of his dark sonnets. I have already dealt with this particular relationship in my book on Hopkins' dramatic writings The Uttermost Mark , but only incidentally; I include it here as the necessary completion of this investigation of Hopkins and St Patrick.

At the age of sixteen Patrick `was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people'. Like them, Christian in name only, he `had turned away from God', but in Ireland he says, `the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God'. Furthermore, the Lord `inspired me - me, the outcast of this world ... to be the man (if only I could!) who... should faithfully serve the people to whom the love of Christ conveyed [me] and gave me for the duration of my life...' (Confession, nos.1,13). But first he would return to his own country. After six years he took flight and found passage on a ship and then for many days travelled on land through deserted country. It was during this time that he had what I would call a nightmare

That...night, when I was asleep, Satan assailed me violently, a thing I shall remember as long as I shall be in this body. And he fell upon me like a huge rock, and I could not stir a limb (no.20).

Hopkins must have started up in astonishment when he read these words for the first time. He had had a similar nightmare in 1873 while at Stonyhurst, which he recorded in his Journal:

I thought something or someone leapt onto me and held me fast: this I think woke me, so that after this I shall have the use of reason... I had lost all muscular stress elsewhere but not sensitive, feeling where each limb lay and thinking that I could recover myself if I could move my finger, I said, and then the arm and so the whole body. The feeling is terrible... I cried on the holy name and by degrees recovered myself as I thought to do. It made me think that this was how the souls in hell would be imprisoned in their bodies as in prisons and of what St Theresa says of `the little press in the wall' where she felt herself to be in vision'.

Actually what Hopkins describes here is something that more than one of us may have experienced. In The Secret of Dreams Pedro Mesegue, SJ, describes it more technically when he writes about certain half-waking states `sometimes accompanied by cataplexy, a paralysis full of a sense of oppression, from which one forces oneself to escape, but which seems to drag one further and further down. The will to get up produces not movement but some hallucinatory deception which really makes one believe one has got up, but this is followed by the realization that one is still in the grip of the cataplexy. A desperate effort must be made in order to escape. But one does not completely lose control of the situation; the critical faculty intervenes and can modify the course of events' It is, he says, `a truly nightmarish state' .

Surely, we can hear echoes of Patrick's nightmare, as well as Hopkins' own, in these lines (of Carrion Comfort):

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me?


With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there, me frantic to avoid
thee and flee?

It is God who is addressed here, not Satan, but as Mackenzie says, `God is here seen as a wild beast, like the demons who assaulted St Antony of Egypt'. He notes, too, how Kathleen Raine compares the image in these lines with `Blake's illustration to the Book of Job in which Satan... masquerades... as the Most High' (Hopkins - Nature and Human Nature, 15) and how Alan M Rose interprets the poem's inconsistencies as reflecting the poet's inability to tell whether his lion-like adversary is Christ or the Devil (Victorian Poetry 15.3, Fall 1977, pp.207-17) . `And he fell on me like a huge rock, and I could not stir a limb', to quote St Patrick again.

The dark sonnet containing the strongest echo of St Patrick's writings is, I feel, `To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life'. And the echo is not only from the Confession but also from another of his writings, the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. But first I think it would help to hear again the entire sonnet.

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace/my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.
I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark haven's baffling ban
Bars or hell's spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

In this poem, more than most, there is no distinguishing between the speaker and the poet. Hopkins speaks of three separations, three removes. There are at least two things that can be said of these removes: 1) in all three he can `Kind love both give and get', and 2) Christ, his `peace/[his] parting', is the cause of them all.

And here is the passage from St Patrick's Confession that Hopkins must have read with the shock of recognition. Patrick has described how, a few years after he had returned to Britain, he `saw in the night the vision of a man... coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, `The voice of the Irish'; and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice...'(no.23). And he heeded that voice and went back to live among the Irish as priest and bishop, then years later wrote in his Confession:

... even if I wished to leave them and go to Britain - and how I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul [where he had studied for the priesthood] to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of the Lord! God knows that I much desired it; but I am bound by the Spirit, who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labor which I have begun - nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come and stay with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord will, and will guard me from every evil way that I may not sin before Him (no.43).

A second passage, similar to the first, is from Patrick's Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. Coroticus and his soldiers were nominal Christians who had gone over to the enemy and now preyed upon `innocent Christians', Patrick writes, `whom I have begotten... and confirmed in Christ'.

And so I live among barbarians, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He is witness that this is so. Not that I wished my mouth to utter anything so hard and harsh; but I am forced by the zeal for God; and the truth of Christ has wrung it from me, out of love, for my neighbors and sons for whom I gave up my country and parents and my life to the point of death. If I be worthy, I live for my God to teach the heathen, even though they may despise me (nos.1,2).

Like Patrick, the speaker in To seem the stranger is a stranger in Ireland, an exile from Britain, `for the love of God'. And this puts him at a third remove from all that is dear to him. Even if he wished to leave and return to Britain, Hopkins, like Patrick, finds himself `bound by the Spirit, who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labor which I have begun - nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come...'. It is safe to say that Gerard Manley Hopkins found both inspiration and companionship in St Patrick while in Ireland - and that he would humbly make his own the last words of Patrick's Confession:

... no one should ever say that it was my ignorance if I did or showed forth anything however small according to God's good pleasure; but let this be your conclusion and let it so be thought, that - as is the perfect truth - it was the gift of God. (no. 62).


The Works of St Patrick, translated and annotated by Ludwig Bieler, Westminster, Md: The Newman Press, 1953.

Devlin, SJ, Christopher (ed), The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 317.

op. cit. p. 260.

Abbott, Claude Colleer (ed), Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins including his correspondence with Coventry Patmore, London: Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 63.

op. cit. pp.163 — 164.

op. cit. p. 178.

op. cit. p. 179.

Abbott, Claude Colleer (ed), The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, London: Oxford University Press, 1935, 1955, p. 252.

op. cit. note 4, p .414.
op. cit. p. 24.

op. cit. p. 219.

op. cit. note 8, p. 195.

op. cit. note 4, pp. 416 — 418.
House, Humphry and Graham Storey (eds), The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 22

op. cit. note 8, p. 195.

op. cit. note 8, p. 232.

The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. lxi — lxii.

ibid. p. 369.

The Uttermost Mark, New York: University Press of America, 1990. op. cit. note 14, p. 238.

The Secret of Dreams, Westminster, Md: The Newman Press, 1961, p. 44. MacKenzie, p. 456.

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