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.