"The Life and Poetry of
Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J."
October 22, 2009 / Minor Hall / University of Virginia/ 5:00pm
"Sometimes a Lantern moves along the night
That interests our eyes."
-- GMH, SJ
On Thursday evening (Oct. 22), the St. Anselm Institute warmly embraced and welcomed Boston College Professor Paul Mariani to the University of Virginia. Prof. Mariani is a widely acclaimed and prolific authority on British and American poetry and literature, including his sixteenth and latest book: Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Life (Viking, 2008).Among numerous awards, Mariani has received the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts award, and two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), a Catholic convert from Anglicanism while a student at Oxford, entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 24 and lived the rest of his life as a Jesuit priest. He taught Latin, Greek and the Classics in several secondary schools and served as a parish priest in several working class parishes in Dublin, Wales and England. Interestingly, in late 1878, Hopkins was assigned to St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in a working class neighborhood near Oxford University, where he participated in the founding of the Catholic Club, which later was renamed the Newman Society in honor of John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890). Hopkins died in Dublin in 1889, at the age of 44, likely from typhoid fever.
Although Hopkins's commitment to his priestly duties freely (by his own account) anchored and absorbed his adult life, his Jesuit superior, Fr. James Jones, encouraged him to engage his natural gifts for poetry after Hopkins was deeply moved by the agonizing shipwreck of the S.S. Duetschland in the winter of 1875. A terrible northeaster grounded the ship off the coast of England, where it was battered and remained unaided for two days. Many downed; but after the storm broke, others were found in the ship's rigging where they desperately had sought an exposed refuge of last resort. Among the dead were five German Franciscan nuns, who were travelling to America because they had been exiled by Bismark's kulturkampf against Catholic clergy and religious. According to The Times account read by Hopkins, the five nuns drowned together, hands clasped, as the tallest nun repeatedly called out: "O Christ, come quickly." Hopkins memorialized this dramatic tragedy in his 35-stanza The Wreck of the Deutschland.
The Jesuit editors of The Month were both impressed and confused by Hopkins submission of the Deutschland, and they ultimately rejected it for publication. The poem, according to Mariani, was the first in which Hopkins realized on paper his new rhythmic innovation--or as he called it: "sprung rhythm" that was generated by "scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong." To mark the stresses, Hopkins used blue chalk on his hand written submission, making it rather unconventional looking poem; and Hopkins additionally experimented with interior line alliterations, across line rhyming schemes, and Welsh suggested chiming rhythms that he believed produced "a better and more natural principle than the ordinary system, much more flexible and capable of greater effects."
When time permitted over the next decade and a half, Mariani explained, Hopkins further developed his Catholic poetic aesthetic, writing hundreds of other poems, which he circulated to a few others, especially his friend Robert Bridges. Hopkins, however, was never much interested in having any of them published or widely admired. And it was Bridges who posthumously collected Hopkins's poems and, almost thirty years later, published them in 1918. Even then, Hopkins innovative metrical experiments and evocative and eclectic images of a world "charged with the grandeur of God" required time to find their rightfully appreciative audiences. Today, however, Gerard Manley Hopkins is widely recognized as one of the great English poets, and his works still inspire and rhythmically resound throughout the recent history and ongoing development of contemporary poetry.