Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844 to devout Anglican parents who fostered from an early age their eldest son’s commitment to religion and to the creative arts. His mother, quite well educated for a woman of her day, was an avid reader. His father wrote and reviewed poetry and even authored a novel, though it was never published. Hopkins also had a number of relatives who were interested in literature, music, and the visual arts, some as dabblers and some professionals; he and his siblings showed similarly creative dispositions from an early age, and Hopkins enjoyed a great deal of support and encouragement for his creative endeavors. He studied drawing and music and at one point hoped to become a painter—as, indeed, two of his brothers did. Even his earliest verses displayed a vast verbal talent.
Hopkins was born in Essex, England, in an area that was then being transformed by industrial development. His family moved to the relatively undefiled neighborhood of Hampstead, north of the city, in 1852, out of a conviction that proximity to nature was important to a healthy, wholesome, and religious upbringing. From 1854 to 1863 Hopkins attended Highgate Grammar School, where he studied under Canon Dixon, who became a lifelong friend and who encouraged his interest in Keats. At Oxford, Hopkins pursued Latin and Greek. He was a student of Walter Pater and befriended the poet Robert Bridges and Coleridge’s grandson. In the 1860s Hopkins was profoundly influenced by Christina Rossetti and was interested in medievalism, the Pre-Raphaelites, and developments in Victorian religious poetry. He also became preoccupied with the major religious controversies that were fermenting within the Anglican Church. Centered at Oxford, the main debate took place between two reform groups: the Tractarians, whose critics accused them of being too close to Catholicism in their emphasis on ritual and church traditions (it was in this culture that Hopkins was reared), and the Broad Church Movement, whose followers believed that all religious faith should be scrutinized on a basis of empirical evidence and logic. Immersed in intense debate over such issues, Hopkins entered into a process of soul-searching, and after much deliberation abandoned the religion of his family and converted to Catholicism. He threw his whole heart and life behind his conversion, deciding to become a Jesuit priest.
Hopkins undertook a lengthy course of training for the priesthood; for seven years he wrote almost no verse, having decided that one who had pledged his life to God should not pursue poetry. Only at the urging of church officials did Hopkins resume his poetry, while studying theology in North Wales, in 1875. He wrote The Wreck of the Deutschland in 1876 and, during the course of the next year, composed many of his most famous sonnets. Hopkins’s subject matter in these mature poems is wholly religious—he believed that by making his work religious-themed he might make poetry a part of his religious vocation. These post-1875 poems follow a style quite different from that of Hopkins’s earlier verse. After his ordination in 1877, Hopkins did parish work in a number of locales. He spent the last years of his short life quite unhappily in Dublin, where he wrote a group of melancholy poems often referred to as the “Terrible Sonnets” or “Sonnets of Desolation”; they exquisitely render the spiritual anguish for which Hopkins is famous. The great poet died in Dublin of typhoid fever in 1889.