Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ: A lover of God and God’s creations

A Kingfisher takes flight (iStock)

This book is both timely and original. It is timely because 2018 is the centennial of the publication of Hopkins’ first book, and original because it focuses on Hopkins’ texts more than on commentary, and because the texts are so varied—poems, letters, journals, sermons and spiritual writings. The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Margaret R. Ellsberg of Barnard College, offers insight into Hopkins’ view of the world, into his mind and how he thinks, and into his relationship with God.

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The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkinsby Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by Margaret R. Ellsberg

Plough Publishing House, 268p, $10

The book is structured chronologically, in five parts: (1) “Incompatible Excellences,” (2) “Christ Calls,” (3) “Reckoning with the Wreck,” (4) “What I Do Is Me,” and (5) “Wrestling with God.”

In Part 1, Ellsberg begins to weave a net of biography that links the later parts and forms the heart of the book. Part 2, “Christ Calls,” covers Hopkins’ Oxford and early Jesuit years (1863–76), offering poems, letters and journal entries. The poems deal with the Eucharist, his sins, his love of God and his call to reject the world and give his life to God. His letters worry that life is trivial (yet the Incarnation brings hope), deal with his conversion from the Church of England to the Catholic Church, and record his parents’ reaction to his conversion. He also worries that England has grown too wealthy and ignores the working class. His journals record glimpses of nature—birds, trees, stars—and a nightmare, a Jesuit retreat, his thoughts on poetical language, on “inscape” (a person’s or thing’s shape and selfhood) and on much else. The reader thus enters directly inside Hopkins’ head.

Hopkins's early poems deal with the Eucharist, his sins, his love of God and his call to reject the world and give his life to God.

Part 3, “Reckoning with the Wreck,” prints his first poem of genius, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1875-76), plus six letters to his poet-friend Robert Bridges (“My verse is less to be read than heard”) and to an old teacher, R.W. Dixon, on topics ranging from fame, to poetic “sprung rhythm,” and to hesitations about publishing his poems.

Part 4, “What I Do Is Me,” offers poems, letters, sermons and spiritual writings (1877-1883). The poems include the great Welsh sonnets “God’s Grandeur,” “The Starlight Night,” “Spring,” “The Windhover,” “Pied Beauty,” “As kingfishers catch fire” and “Hurrahing in Harvest” (all celebrating nature and nature’s God), “The Loss of the Eurydice” (another shipwreck poem), “The May Magnificat” (about the Virgin Mary), “Binsey Poplars,” “Inversnaid” and “Ribblesdale” (environmental poems about trees and greenery and pollution), poems on his personal heroes (“Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” “Henry Purcell”) and poems about parishioners (“The Bugler Boy’s First Communion,” “Spring and Fall”). Eleven letters to Bridges and Dixon discuss poetry, beauty, a cuckoo’s song, a Corpus Christi procession, Walt Whitman, Hopkins’ own weariness, Christ’s self-understanding as a human, Hopkins’ frequent changes of assignment (he calls himself “Fortune’s football”) and the weather. Fifteen sermons, preached in Wales, Oxford, Bedford Leigh, and Liverpool, present Christ as king, healer, hero, and “the greatest genius that ever lived,” the Holy Ghost as a cricket player cheering on a teammate, and St. Peter as a “doorkeeper.” His spiritual writings and retreat notes reflect on human “selving” and selfhood, praise of God, prayer, becoming worthy of God—“godworthiness”—and how he “earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions.”

Some of Hopkins's later poems celebrate workmen, a Jesuit saint, and every human as an “immortal diamond.”

Part 5, “Wrestling with God,” treats Hopkins’ years in Dublin (1844-89) as professor of Greek and Latin literature at the Jesuits’ University College, years of both friendship and loneliness which brought months of depression in 1885, then recovery, then his death from typhoid in 1889, seven weeks before his forty-fifth birthday. Poems brilliantly describe his psychological anguish—“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” “No worst, there is none,” “Carrion Comfort”—until others record his growing peace: “Patience, hard thing!” and “My own heart let me more have pity on.” Three poems celebrate workmen, a Jesuit saint, and every human as an “immortal diamond.” Two final poems—one addressed to God, the other to Robert Bridges—lament his loss of poetic creativity.

Hopkins’ last letters discuss poetic experiments, record his “languishment of body and mind” and “fits of sadness,” but also affirm how a man who “has denied himself and followed Christ...does receive from God a special guidance, a more particular providence.” As for valuing his writings, “if I do myself, much more does our Lord.” And he assures his mother that, even in sickness, “I am the placidest man in the world.” His “Devotional Writings” record an Ignatian retreat in early 1889 where he reflects, “I am now forty-four. I do not waver in my allegiance; I never have since my conversion to the Church,” but “What is my wretched life? ... All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch.” Yet “there is a happiness, hope, the anticipation of happiness hereafter,” and “my life is determined by the Incarnation [of Christ] down to most of the details of the day.” Reflecting on how the world was created “to give him [God] praise, reverence, and service: to give him glory,” he concludes, “I WAS MADE FOR THIS, each one of us was made for this.”

This book offers fresh insights into the great Jesuit and Catholic poet who so dearly loved God and God’s creations, and who sang of them with glee.

The unifying factor in all this, Margaret Ellsberg’s biography, is detailed, helpful and well done, though a few errors appear: a misspelled name (the scholar “Lesley Higgins” is “Leslie”), word-confusion (“to pursue the theologate” instead of “theology”), forgotten scholars (W.H. Gardner is called a “great editor,” while the later and greater Norman H. MacKenzie and Catherine Phillips go unmentioned), factual errors (Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery is not a “Catholic” cemetery) and unfairly dark views of Jesuit life (“the tight constraints of the Jesuit order,” Hopkins as a “scrupulous obedient servant of his insensitive superiors”).

But enough negativity. I gladly recommend this book. It will help readers meet Hopkins directly and through his own words, and offers fresh insights into the great Jesuit and Catholic poet who so dearly loved God and God’s creations, and who sang of them with glee.

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Bruce Snowden
9 months ago

So that everyone should have something, as someone has said in AMERICA, or better put, so that no one should have nothing, nations and individuals blessed with variable degrees of affluence must be willing to “add a little water” to the soup of human need, that is, sacrificing flavor for substance. It is in the tangibility of substance, not in the sensuous superficiality of flavor, in its own way also a gift from God, that sustenance resides.

Saint Pope JP II speaking to Americans, about their world-affluent reality, at a Mass at Yankee Stadium said, “Give not from your abundance, but out of your very substance!” We are not to give until it helps, rather until it hurts! That’s where sacrifice enters the picture, the type of sacrifice my wife and I were reminded of by the priest at our Nuptial Mass fifty-one years ago – “Sacrifice is usually irksome. Love makes it easy, perfect love makes it a joy!”

How is this done? I think by amicably ending the ecological and economic assault on the poor and needy, by Corporate and individual greed and avarice. Inventing a word, by voluntary “ecolomics” allowing the ecologies and economics of the earth to work together constructively, not destructively, deleting from the internetting of body and soul gross selfishness.

Want a starting blueprint straight from heaven? Try Mt. 26-vs. 35-41. Simplistic? That the trouble with me - I tend to dig through the rubble of complexities looking for a simple solution What can I share from my abundance? A little more water in my cup of soup, sacrificing flavor for substance.

This was posted at a different site years ago but I decided to repost it here in tribute to Jesuit poet and environmentalist, Jesuit priest Gerald Manley Hopkins, a man akin to Creator God in understanding and respecting Creation.

Bruce Snowden
9 months ago

Sacrifice flavor for substance
By Bruce Snowden
Posted 8/6/15 This Post was first posted in The Riverdale Press, Pulitzer winning newspaper of the NW Bronx, NYC.
I am now reposting honoring again Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. outstanding and renowned environmental poet.

A Sufi teaching instructs, “To pluck a flower is to trouble a star.” Yes, all creation is related one to the other in origin, evolution separating and bringing to light the Creator’s intent, following the “Big Bang” and its incalculable cosmological fling, nothing left untouched! Yes, we are all stardust and interrelated, in essence I think within the biblical concept of the brotherhood/sisterhood of all humanity – all creation really, under the Fatherhood of God
The second excerpt is as follows, “The looming environmental disaster (the root meaning of the word disaster) is “ill-starred”… (focusing on) “a communion of subjects that are interconnected and interdependent for life.” Indeed, we do depend on animate and inanimate materiality all working together purposefully. Thus the wisdom of Pope Francis’ insights bring to light our responsibility in all ways — economically too, for the greening of the earth our common home.

The question may arise, “Why should this be?” Well, as someone once said, so “that no one should have nothing.” In other words, nations and individuals blessed with varying degrees of affluence must be willing to add a little water to the soup of human need, that is, sacrifice flavor for substance. It is in the tangibility of substance, not in the sensuous superficiality of flavor, in its own way also a gift from God, that sustenance resides. We are our brothers/sisters keepers!

How can this be done? I think by amicably ending the ecological and economic assault on the poor and needy, by corporate and individual greed and avarice of some. Inventing a word, by voluntary compassionate “ecolomics” allowing the ecologies and economics of our common home the cosmos, sister earth, to work together constructively, by deleting from the internet ting of body and soul gross inequities and selfishness.
Don’t know how the following was separated from the above but this should be the continuation as the tribute to Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. commenting on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato si”.

This is not an easy task, but love makes all things easy and perfect love makes it a joy! Love is the way an ideal to strive towards. So, perhaps nothing else need be said. However, allow me to add my final thoughts, hopefully beneficial to the overall picture of Pope Francis' intent.

In Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato si" ("Praised be"), he writes as a realistic mystic in touch with what is and with what is to come, one and the same, yet more, the fruit of prayer, study and scientific contributions from some of the best.

For some, however, Francis' words are hard to swallow, their insights into what the pope says dwarfed by other interests, some legitimate. I t seems to me critics predetermined a disagreeable scent before the roses bloomed and holding their noses tight they are unable to smell the flora. How enlightening — once inhaled, ingested and assimilated — "Praised be" truly is.

Many have forgotten that Creator God is first and foremost a poet, every grain of sand a poem, every leaf a poem, all creation sings unfinished songs, creation an ongoing song, a poem being written, songs and poems of love because God is love growing, glowing, as lovers know love does. The language of lovers is poetry and song. Pope Francis knows this as did his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, a man acknowledged by everyone as "Everybody's Saint!"

In short, "Praised be" tells us we must lovingly remove discordance from creation, as creation sings its songs, writes its poems. We must protect creation, erasing the smudges of abuse that we have placed on God's masterpiece, the green earth, the entire expanse of our cosmological home. What could be more true? Thank you, Pope Francis.

Beth Cioffoletti
8 months 3 weeks ago

This won me over. I'm needing a book about now, and having skirted around GMH all my life, I think I'm ready for him now. I'm getting the book.

Bruce Snowden
8 months 3 weeks ago

I had heard his name years ago, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., a Jesuit priest. His psychology, his spirituality, kin to a gnarled Olive Tree, one from the Garden of Bloody Sweat and Angelic Comfort, like a Weeping Willow bent forward in tears for real, or imagined sin, filled with the certitude of uncertainty, down in adoration falling, lo the Sacred Host he hailed! Or railed.
But really, I knew little or nothing about him. Well, I did know he was a poet, an aspectual poet as I call him, very concerned with God's creative points of view it seems to me. His poetry was the poetry of Jesus, "See the lilies of the field, how they grow! Not even Solomon in all his glory was ever attired like one of these!" Seeking ever, finding never. Is that true? Well, he seemed tortured by freedom , a one of a kind, kind man, a worthy Jesuit, a victim priest. I like him, his wholly, holy strangeness. Father Hopkins, from the Heights of Heaven pray for me that I too, may be made worthy of the Promises of Christ as you were, Amen.

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