Gerald Manley Hopkins was born in Essex, England (now part of London), in 1844 and was the eldest of nine children of wealthy high church Anglican parents who fostered from an early age their eldest son’s commitment to religion and to the creative arts. His mother was an avid reader, and his father wrote and reviewed poetry. Hopkins also had 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 wrote poetry from an early age, studied music and drawing, and at one point hoped to become a painter. Even his earliest verses displayed a vast verbal talent.

The family moved to 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 acquired a life-long interest in the works of the poet John Keats. At Balliol College, Oxford, from 1863–1867, Hopkins pursued Latin and Greek. He was a student of the prominent scholar and literary critic Walter Pater and befriended the poet Robert Bridges. During this time, Hopkins was profoundly influenced by the writer and poet Christina Rossetti and was interested in medievalism, the Pre-Raphaelites, and developments in Victorian religious poetry.

During this time, Hopkins became preoccupied with the major religious controversies that were fermenting between two reform groups within the Anglican Church—the Tractarians and he Broad Church Movement. Critics of the Tractarians 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. On the other side of the debate was 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 a process of soul-searching, and after much deliberation left the Anglican church and converted to Catholicism in 1866—a decision that alienated Hopkins from many friends and family members. Under the guidance of the influential English Catholic theologian John Henry Newman, Hopkins threw his whole heart and life behind his conversion, and in 1868 he 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 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 few 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. It has been suggested by recent scholars that Hopkins may have been dealing with the effects of bipolar disorder or unipolar depression. After several years of poor health, the great poet died in Dublin of typhoid fever in relative obscurity in 1889.

It was only after Hopkins’s death that his works became famous. Robert Bridges, Hopkins’s friend from his time at Oxford, who was the British Poet Laureate from 1913 to 1930, arranged for the posthumous publication of some of his poems. After the publication of a collection of such poems in 1918, Hopkins’s originality and style were embraced and celebrated by influential critics and leading poets.