GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS was born July 28, 1844, at Stratford, near London. He began his education at Newgate and completed it at Balliol College, Oxford. Under the influence of the Oxford Movement, he entered the Catholic Church in 1866. In order to prepare himself to enter the Society of Jesus, Hopkins left Balliol and entered the Birmingham Oratory, where he was further influenced by the association and friendship of Father Newman.
His religious vocation led him to the priesthood and the Society of Jesus in 1868. Following his ordination he was sent to work among the poor in Liverpool. After a period as preacher in London he was stationed at St. Aloysius Church, Oxford. Later came his appointment as a Fellow of the Royal University of Ireland, from which post he went to Dublin, where he acted as classical examiner until his death in 1880.
The poems of Hopkins, though few in number, have caused a sensation in the world of letters. His system of verse writing, adequately explained in his preface to his poems, a system which Hopkins himself did not follow with any degree of faithfulness, has done much to give comfort to poets of the twentieth century bent on creating a new school of poetry. Basically Hopkins' system is a free system of verse, though it appears not to be. For its effect it depends upon a double mechanic: first, the normally half-heard measure of words with their regular accents and emphases; second, the mind or tone accent of ideas which may be based on the importance of the ideas or, as in nursery rhymes, upon mere caprice and solely for the clash of word sounds. His poems have, therefore, both an inscape and an outscape: the outscape what is called normal scansion; the inscape, idea emphasis. Hopkins adds to the freedom of this system by breaking his lines where he wills, even in the first foot of a new line, and by adding extra feet at the end of his lines as sense or double rhythm dictates. His use of compound words is uniquely original and adds much to the crowded opulence of his lines.
It is not without point that Hopkins constantly refers to his system as a restoration, or, if you will, a return to pre-Shakespearean standards both for our spoken and verse language. As a matter of fact, he is not entirely accurate, though he did see vaguely that those who attempted to make of English verse a mere follower of Latin and Greek measures neither fully understood their own language nor its musical possibilities. In the composition of Latin and Greek poems the first requirements are those of measure and the correctness of endings, in English verse the emphasis is: first, on the inscape or musical quality of the idea pattern; second, in the half-heard outscape of scansion which may be altered as words are combined in phrases. Greek and Latin words have absolute measure, English words have duration and measure of a sort, depending upon the ideas they serve.
As it stands, Hopkins' verse system more nearly fits the nature and demands of our language than any other system set down by any English poet or critic.
The Wreck of the Deutschland remains his greatest poem not merely because of its length, but because of the complication of the idea it embodies. As Job discovered, the power and wrath of God are only understood by understanding His mercy. This was the lesson the nuns taught in The Wreck.
The so-called "Terrible Sonnets" have been somewhat overestimated. Half the seeming anguish of them is due to Hopkins' use of exclamations and the unusual ways in which he breaks his lines. Whether they sum up his "dark night of the soul," spiritual dryness, or anguish at his lack of inspiration, they are good sonnets though somewhat pale beside the perfect beauty of The Windhover.
Hopkins' poems are indeed a horn book of prosody for anyone who is interested in English poetry. Packed with ideas, as they are, and ornamented with the most lambent flowers of rhetoric, doubly lovely in their originality, the poems must be taken slowly and read often before yielding their full felicity.
The best edition of the poems is that edited by Robert Bridges.
As a letter writer, Hopkins also stood in the first rank. His letters are spontaneous, witty, and they range up and down the whole field of the arts. They were published by the Oxford Press in two volumes, 1935, and were edited by C. Collier Abbot.
The story of Hopkins' life is a story of reticences. The official life is that of Father Lahey, S.J.
For those who find Hopkins a "difficult poet," the competent study of the man and his work by Dr. John Pick, the Oxford Press, is indispensable.