Gerard Manley Hopkins has been heavily psychoanalysed since his death. Much of this seems to lie on a biographical reading of his poems, in particular the so-called Sonnets of Desolation written in the mid-1880s.They are certainly bleak:
To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace/my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I weár-
Y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.
I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
- To seem the stranger
There are occasions in his life that present a clear basis for melancholy – his repression of his own homosexuality at university; his alienation from his parents after his conversion to Catholicism and his entering the priesthood; his religious alienation from the material world; and his possible unrequited love for his classmate Digby Mackworth Dolben, with whom he later corresponded and wrote The Beginning of the End for, a poem designated ‘must never be printed’ by his posthumous editor. Whether or not he was rendered a depressive by these events, or as he has been labelled in modern times, a sufferer of bi-polar disorder, is an endless debate. Personally, I find ascribing subjective notions of recently defined illnesses to dead artists fairly boring, especially when they rely on biographical readings of their work.
Clearly, Hopkins certainly had any number of reasons to be depressed – whether he was or not is another matter – but by far the most interesting aspect of his ‘inner being’ is the apparently intense struggle he waged throughout his life to reconcile his conception of himself as a poet with that of a serious religious man.
The fight began with his conversion to Catholicism in 1866. Upon entering the Jesuits, he began to feel that his interest in poetry was antithetical to a serious religious life. He eventually changed his mind after reading Duns Scotus, one of the ‘Big Three’ Medieval religious philosophers along with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. He accepted Scotus’ argument that God exists only as an unknowable infinity, whereas the being of everything else is finite and that only the being of these ‘other things’ can be knowable by man. After reading this, Hopkins became convinced of the impossibility of finding a perfect replica of God’s beauty in nature, and began writing again and recording the natural world. However, he didn’t read Duns Scotus until 1872. He hadn’t written a word of poetry since 1866, and had burned everything he ever written up to that date.
Feelings of ambivalence towards and continuous rejection of his own poetry seem to have dogged him throughout his life, reinforced by the fact that he remained mostly unpublished during his lifetime. Later, the acceptance by a Jesuit publication of his The Wreck of the Deutschland, but its later non-publication, particularly hurt him.
In his final years, the old contradiction returned, and he underwent another crisis, coming to believe that the egotism required by an artist in seeking an audience violated his religious vows of humility, and decided not to publish anything. Later, he came to believe that a poet required an audience for criticism and encouragement. This contradiction led him to feel that he had failed both as a poet and as a priest. He died of typhoid fever in 1889, aged 44.
Hopkins produced some of the most experimental poetry of his age, completely contravening established norms. For that, and his experimental use of language – in particular, he taught himself Old English – he is often considered a proto-modernist. It is a shame he is not considered alongside Rimbaud for his revolutionary effect on poetry, who was equally violent in his shaking up of the symbolist movement and French poetry in general. As the inner life of artists can often overshadow their poetry, so can their private lives. The sexy, tragic libertinism of Rimbaud is far more attractive to a modern audience than that of Hopkins’ quiet priest.
But whatever remains, the graceful wonder for the natural world displayed in his poems is amazing:
I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quite utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
His last words were “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”