Essay / Literature

The Monastic and Intellectual Ethos of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844 in Stratford, England into what we could consider a middle-class family. Perhaps not surprising given the shape of his poetry, Hopkins had a sensitive nature compared with his father’s demanding nature. As one of nine children, the Hopkins family was large and they were committed High Church Anglicans, being influenced to some degree by the nascent Oxford Movement that began only about ten years prior to Hopkins’ birth. According to Hopkins’ biographer Humphrey House,

Both Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins were very religious High Anglicans. Already by the time of their marriage in 1843, and increasingly afterwards, High Anglican devotion and forms of worship, changed and enlivened by the Oxford Movement, showed a perplexing diversity. In this development it would be less true to say that they became moderate Tractarians than that they were among the few for whom Tractarianism was hardly necessary; they already believed and practiced what at first it taught… They loved the English Church as the Church into which they were born and baptised; they valued its comprehensiveness and national character, and at the same time felt themselves to belong to the main Christian tradition.[1]Humphrey House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” Hopkins Quarterly 37 (2010), 115.

The Oxford Movement (also known as Tractarianism) originated among a group of Oxford University tutors and fellows in 1833. At its heart, the movement was an effort to direct the Church of England back towards a more deliberate Catholic orientation in both practice and theology; that is, adopting those practices characteristic of the first nineteen centuries of Christian history, though it also espoused a strong political ideology and emphasis on social justice. Brad Faught writes, “The Oxford Movement… posed deep and far-reaching questions about the nature of the relationship between church and state, the catholic heritage of the Church of England, and the Church’s social responsibility.”[2]C. Brad Faught, The Oxford Movement: A Thematic History of the Tractarians and Their Times (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), ix. In orientation, the “Oxford Movement presented not so much a system of doctrine as an approach to churchmanship… [The leaders] sough to revivify the concept of the Anglican via media as a middle road between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and make it real in the lives of the faithful.”[3]R. David Cox, “Newman, Littlemore, and a Tractarian Attempt at Community,” Anglican and Episcopal History 62.3 (1993), 344. The start of the Oxford Movement is traditionally dated to July 14, 1833, when John Keble, Oxford professor, poet and Anglican priest, preached a sermon at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, entitled, “National Apostasy.” In this sermon, Keble warns the Church of England that it must not be like the Israelites, who failed to acknowledge God as their true king while allowing the temporal kings to direct the nation into apostasy: “God forbid, that any Christian land should ever, by her prevailing temper and policy, revive the memory and likeness of Saul, or incur a sentence of reprobation like his.” Keble and the earliest Tractarians (including primarily John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey, and Richard Hurrell Froude), believed that the state-supported Church of England had already begun to go the way of unfaithful Israel and it was time to restore the Church of England to her rightful place in society. As the movement quickly gained momentum, its theological agenda was composed primarily of reintroducing traditional, Catholic church practices, including vestments and monasticism, for example, which had been eradicated from the Church of England since the 1540s.

The Oxford Movement impacted local parishes in several ways including the more frequent celebration of the Holy Eucharist with priests wearing vestments celebrating at altars where candles were lit, all of which were supposedly Roman Catholic innovations according to the anti-Tractarians. In Oxford Movement-inspired parishes there was a focus on the recitation of the Daily Office, the observance of saints days, an enhancement of the worship space with the use of candles, flowers and artistic decorations. In short, in some cases, though not all, a Tractarian parish would, in many ways, look like a Roman Catholic parish. The renewed, Catholic focus on beauty and piety were not appreciated by all Anglicans but Hopkins’ family adopted it as their preferred form of worship so much so that one of his sisters, Milicent, became an Anglican nun in 1878.

Hopkins was baptized at St. John’s Anglican Church, Stratford on August 24, 1844. The curate of the parish was Rev. Charles Nicoll, a graduate of Oxford University, where the Tractarians originated, and a later subscriber to The Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, suggesting that he had Catholic sympathies and perhaps practices. In 1852 the Hopkins family moved to Oak Hill Park, also in the greater London area. It was here that the family began attending St. John’s Anglican Church, Hampstead (which Hopkins’ later described as “dreary”[4]Gerard Manley Hopkins, Letter to A. W. M. Baillie (March 1864); Claude Colleer Abbott, ed., Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, including his correspondence with Coventry Patmore (London: … Continue reading), where Hopkins’ father served as leader of the parish Sunday school and as a churchwarden. Catharine Randall reports that Hopkins’ father expected the entire family to join in family prayers at home each day in addition to the regular reading of Scripture and the practicing of what Randall calls “a sacramental piety”; that is, they were particularly devoted to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist alongside frequent reception of Communion, something that stuck with Hopkins for the remainder of his life and of which he writes in several poems. According to House, “Their home doctrine was emphatically Catholic and Sacramental… The Holy Communion was the climax of their scheme of devotion.”[5]House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 116. When summarizing the religious nature of Hopkins’ childhood, House concludes that

In its outward appearances the Hopkins piety was conventional and domestic, not at all ambitious or extravagant… Life was not ascetic or puritanical; but the whole code and style ruled out luxury and display and delicacy in sumptuary pleasures. Such a religion was respectable and might be called dull; but it was a very real, pervasive thing colouring the whole organization of the household and the relations between all its members.[6]House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 117-118.

I would agree with House’s conclusion that “This family background of active and informed piety cannot be given too much importance in understanding [Hopkins’] later life.”[7]House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 119.

At the age of ten Hopkins was sent to Highgate School. Here he was well educated, especially in the English language and classics, but also in religion. Over the years he would have studied, and possibly memorized, the weekly Collect from the Book of Common Prayer along with the weekly Gospel reading. He also studied the Anglican Catechism and Anglicanism’s Reformation-era doctrinal statement known as the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. While at Highgate, which had no chapel of its own, the students attended religious services at St. Michael’s Anglican Church, Highgate. During the latter part of Hopkins’ time at the school, the minister at St. Michael’s was the Rev. C. B. Dalton, who was a firm believers of the Oxford Movement, someone who is often called an “advanced Tractarian.” The parish itself had a regular sung celebration of the Holy Eucharist and also celebrated the Holy Eucharist on major feast days. Its Tractarian leanings are further evidenced by the fact, for example, that one of the guest preachers during Lent 1863 was T. T. Carter, a well-known Tractarian who had founded an Anglican religious order called the Sisterhood of St. John the Baptist. Nonetheless, St. Michael’s, despite having a choir that wore surplices, “was not very advanced in its ceremonies and ritual.”[8]House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 130. In any case, between the faculty at Highgate and the clergy at St. Michael’s Hopkins could have easily come under the influence of the teaching of the Oxford Movement and he was soon to move Oxford himself, where he was influenced by Edward Pusey, one of the main founders and long-term defenders of the Oxford Movement.

Hopkins became a student at Balliol College in the University of Oxford in April 1863. Though he studied with a liberal and irreligious faculty, he was also impacted by devout faculty such as Pusey and Henry Liddon. At the time of Hopkins’ arrival to Oxford, all of the colleges in the university were affiliated with the Church of England and only a few colleges, including Balliol, admitted Roman Catholic students. All students, including Hopkins, had to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and at Balliol Sunday evening chapel attendance was mandatory. Under Pusey’s influence, however, Hopkins would have been exposed to what we might call a “general Anglicanism” or, more rightly, a Catholic Anglicanism inasmuch as Pusey himself had written an “eirenicon” showing the similarities between Anglicanism and the Roman Catholic Church. Hopkins was further influenced by Tractarianism when he chose to have the Anglo-Catholic theologian and priest Henry Liddon as his regular confessor. Also of note is that within his first week at Oxford, Hopkins walked nearly three miles to the parish church of Saints Mary and Nicholas in the village of Littlemore. This is the church that John Henry Newman had built in 1836 at the height of the Oxford Movement. Newman moved permanently to Littlemore in 1843, living a monastic-like lifestyle of seclusion, self-denial and simplicity before converting to Roman Catholicism in 1845. Little did Hopkins suspect that he would follow in Newman’s footsteps, culminating in his own conversion literally at Newman’s feet.

It was while at Balliol College that Hopkins’ affinity toward Roman Catholicism began to emerge, coming through the influence of other members of the college but also through his own practices, such as keeping a statue of the Virgin Mary in his room and kissing the floor in front of it every morning, or so Hopkins recounts in his journal.[9]Norman White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 111. Other evidence emerges from his reading life and his journals. For example, having read about Savonarola, the late medieval Dominican mystic in Florence, Hopkins concluded, “How strangely different is the fate of two reformers, Savonarola and Luther! The one martyred in the Church, the other successful and the admired author of world-wide heresy in schism.” This entry led Hopkins scholar Norman White to conclude, “This is the first clue in Hopkins’s writings to his choice of a Counter-Reformation order rather than a pre-Reformation one.”[10]White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 111. A poem written at this time gives insight into his personal religious practices further. In “Easter Communion” Hopkins talks about the “pure fasted faces,” “lips… striped in secret with breath-taking whips” (i.e., flagellation) and “crookèd rough-scored chequers” meant to imitate the piercings of Jesus. It is likely that he was subjecting himself to these Lenten disciplines in addition to the practice of regular confession and writing out his sins in his diary. The point of all this is to point to the fact that Hopkins’ religious sentiments and formation continued to grow while at Oxford, again under the influence of High Church professors such as Pusey, Liddon and friends. At the same time, however, Hopkins noted regularly in his journal his lack of concentration at church services, including the ones at his home parish of St. John’s while on summer holiday. He writes,

My prayers must meet a brazen heaven
And fail and scatter all away.
Unclean and seeming unforgiven
My prayers I scarcely call to pray.
I cannot buoy my heart above;
Above I cannot entrance win.
I reckon precedents of love,
But feel the long success of sin.[11]White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 124.

A few days later Hopkins began writing a letter to his Balliol friend Alexander Baillie. Baillie had written to Hopkins that a “great change” had occurred in him wherein a “Catholic principle” had “approved itself” to him. Hopkins’ response is quite telling:

the sordidness of things, which one is compelled perpetually to feel is perhaps… the most unmixedly painful thing one knows of: and this is (objectively) intensified and (subjectively) destroyed by [Roman] Catholicism. If people could all know this, to take no higher ground, no other inducement would to very many minds be needed to lead them to [Roman] Catholicism and no opposite inducement could dissuade them from it.[12]Cited in White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 125.

By this time, as White writes, Hopkins “became doubtful of the efficacy of Anglican Holy Communion,” suggesting his agreement with the Roman Catholic position of transubstantiation in the Holy Eucharist. By the time he returned to Oxford for the fall term he was doubtful of the truth of Anglicanism, expressing it in the poem “The Half-way House”:

Love I was shewn upon the mountain-side
And bid to catch Him ere the drop of day.
See, Love, I creep and Thou on wings dost ride:
Love it is evening now and Thou away;
Love, it grows darker here and Thou art above;
Love, come down to me if Thy name be Love.

My national old Egyptian reed gave way;
I took of vine a cross-barred rod or rood.
Then next I hungered: Love when here, they say,
Or once or never took love’s proper food;
But I must yield the chase, or rest and eat.—
Peace and food cheered me where four rough ways meet.

Hear yet my paradox: Love, when all is given,
To see Thee I must [see] Thee, to love, love;
I must o’ertake Thee at once and under heaven
If I shall overtake Thee at last above.
You have your wish; enter these walls, one said:
He is with you in the breaking of the bread.

In short, the “national old Egyptian reed” is the Church of England that has given way, to be replaced by the Roman Catholic Church, which is the “vine” of “cross-barred rod or rood.” Nonetheless, Hopkins remained an Anglican throughout the remainder of 1865 and well into 1866. It was only in July 1866, while traveling with friends on holiday, that Hopkins writes that he “saw clearly the impossibility of staying in the Church of England” but decides to say nothing for at least three months and to remain an Anglican until his Oxford graduation.

Nevertheless, the next month, on August 28, Hopkins wrote a letter to the aforementioned John Henry Newman, himself a former leader of the Tractarians and Oxford don who had famously converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845, saying,

I am eager to become a [Roman] Catholic, and I thought that you might possibly be able to see me for a short time when I pass through Birmingham in a few days… I do not want to be helped to any conclusions of belief, for I am thankful to say my mind is made up… I am clear as to the sole authority of the Church of Rome.[13]Hopkins, Letter to Dr. John H. Newman (August 28, 1866); Abbott, ed., Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 11.

Unfortunately for Hopkins, Newman was out of the country but he did eventually respond on September 14, inviting Hopkins to visit him at any time. Hopkins arranged to visit Newman at the Birmingham Oratory, where Newman lived as an Oratorian priest, on September 20. This visit changed Hopkins’ mind about the timing of his conversion, writing in his diary: “I am to go over from Oxford to the Oratory for my reception next term‒early in the term I must make it.”[14]White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 137. It would be safe to say at this point that Hopkins had converted to Roman Catholicism but he had not yet been received into the Roman Catholic Church, an event that would happen the following month. Even so, the rumors of his conversion began to fly around Oxford, so much so that Edward Pusey refused to meet with Hopkins upon his return to Oxford for the start of term in early October. Pusey’s response to Hopkins’ request for a meeting is terse and to the point:

I thank you for the personal kindness of your letter, it would not be accurate to say, that I ‘refused to see’ you. What I declined doing was to see you simply ‘to satisfy relations.’ I know too well what that means. It is simply to enable the pervert to say to his relations ‘I have seen Dr P, and he has failed to satisfy me,’ whereas they know very well that they meant not to be satisfied, that they come with a fixed purpose not to be satisfied. This is merely to waste my time, and create the impression that I have nothing to say…

I do not answer what you say, in a note, because it would be still more useless. You have a heavy responsibility. Those who will gain by what you seem determined to do, will be the unbelievers. [15]White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 139.

Liddon, Hopkins’ High Church professor and confessor, upon hearing the rumor, wrote a letter to Hopkins, saying: “after our intimate friendship with each other, I cannot bear be silent… Let me entreat you once more not hastily to take a step which unless it be certainly God’s will, must be a most serious mistake.” Liddon further accused Hopkins of shutting his eyes “under the impression that you have had a call from heaven.”[16]White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 140. In any case, despite the rejection of Pusey, Liddon and even his family, Hopkins went from Oxford to Birmingham and was received into the Roman Catholic Church by John Henry Newman on October 21, 1866.

In June 1867 Hopkins graduated from Oxford with a B.A., spending time thereafter touring France. After returning from France, on August 23, 1867, Hopkins make his first steps “to be a priest or religious.”[17]White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 146. In the meantime, however, he went up to Birmingham, having accepted a teaching post offered to him by Newman at the Oratory School. Hopkins stayed incredibly busy with the school so much so he even considered quitting as early as the end of September, especially if he were to get a vocation to the priesthood. On February 12, 1868 he wrote to Baillie that he was “expecting to take orders and soon” wondering if “in a few months I may not be shut up in a cloister.”[18]Hopkins, Letter to A. W. M. Baillie (February 12, 1868); Abbott, ed., Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 84-85. He left the Oratory School for good on April 15 and later that month made a ten day retreat at the Jesuit Manresa House at Roehampton. On May 5, during that retreat, he “resolved to be a religious” and on May 7 wrote in his journal that he would either become a Benedictine monk or a Jesuit. He made a firm decision quickly, applying to the Jesuits the same month. He received a letter of acceptance on May 30, 1868. Hopkins entered the Society of Jesus on September 7, 1868.

On September 27, 1540 Pope Paul III approved a new religious order known as the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. The founder of this order, Ignatius of Loyola, was immediately elected superior and oversaw the rapid expansion of the order. Before his death Ignatius dictated an account of his life in which he recounts his birth into nobility and the subsequent education that came with such a station in life. He tells of how he was injured around the age of thirty at the battle of Pamplona, Spain in 1521 and how he entered into a long convalescence during which he experienced a profound religious conversion. So moved by this experience, he spent a year in prayer and reflection at Manresa, near Barcelona, from 1522-1523. During this year, Ignatius reports that he experienced a number of mystical experiences and he began setting out his spiritual vision in his masterpiece, the Spiritual Exercises. In 1524 he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and in 1526 he entered the University of Alcalá before moving to the University of Paris from 1528-1535. It was in Paris that he gathered around him the group of men who would form the nucleus of the Society.

In August 1534 Ignatius and six companions covenanted together to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they intended to serve for the rest of their lives. They were soon joined by three others. They also agreed, however, that if they could not find passage from Venice to Jerusalem within a year’s time that they would then present themselves to the pope for service anywhere in the Church. By 1537 they were all in Venice where those who were not already priests were ordained. They spent their time preaching, hearing confessions, catechizing and caring for the sick. As an easy way to identify themselves to inquirers they adopted the name “Company of Jesus.” Their life was formed in large part by the Spiritual Exercises but it is unlikely at this point that they thought of themselves as a new monastic order. Unable to make it to Jerusalem, by 1538 they traveled to Rome, where they secured an audience with the pope and continued performing the ministries that characterized their lives in Venice. As well, they were guiding others through Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. In the spring of 1539 the companions discussed and prayed about their future, deciding to form a new order. They then drew up a short form of life, called the “Formula of the Institute,” that was approved by the pope. According to the Formula the society is

founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of the souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of pubic preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God, and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments.

As well, they were dedicated to “reconciling the estranged, in holily assisting and serving those who are found in prisons or hospitals, and indeed in performing any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.”[19]George E. Ganss, trans., The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1970), 66-67.

Though a religious order, the Jesuits never adopted a distinct habit and many Jesuits simply wore black cassocks held together with a cincture. They were governed by General Congregations whose decisions were enforced by the General of the order who was elected for life and appointed all other major superiors. From the start obedience to the superior was a hallmark of the order as was the fact that it answered directly to the pope. In the words of the “Formula of the Institute” “this entire Society and the individual members who make their profession in it are campaigning for God under faithful obedience to His Holiness Pope Paul III and his successors in the Roman pontificate.” This devotion to the pope went so far as to include “a special vow to carry out whatever the present and future Roman pontiffs may order.”[20]Ganss, trans., The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, 68. Regarding the order’s General, he was given all the “authority and power over the Society which are useful for its good administration, correction, and government.”[21]Ganss, trans., The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, 69. The order expanded rapidly so that by 1615 there were 13,000 members.[22]John W. O’Malley, “The Society of Jesus,” in Religious Orders of the Catholic Reformation: In Honor of John C. Olin on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday, ed. Richard L. DeMolen (New York: Fordham … Continue reading And all of this growth and expansion, no doubt, was largely attributable to the formation each Jesuit received by way of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, arguably the most influential sixteenth-century Roman Catholic Reformation spiritual text.

Thus, by the time that Hopkins entered the Jesuit novitiate at Roehampton, the Society was a well-oiled, well-experienced machine, if you will. In an article written in 1896, the Jesuit R. F. Clarke lays out the training that a Jesuit receives and this would have been Hopkins’ experience too. Once he entered the novitiate he would have put on the Jesuit habit, which is the black cassock. The novices get up “at 5.30, make a short visit to the chapel at 6, in order to make their morning oblation of the day to God, and from 6 to 7 make their meditation… At 6.55 the bell rings for Holy Mass” followed by another time of meditation. “Breakfast is at 7.45, and at 8.30 the novices have to be present… for half an hour’s reading of” Alphonsus Rodriguez’s Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection. “At 9 an instruction on the rules is given by the master of novices after which they have to make their beds and arrange their little cells, and, when this is done, to repair to some appointed place, where one of their number, appointed for the purpose, assigns to each a certain amount of manual labour… At 10.15 they have to learn by heart… some portion of the rules of the Society, or such prayers, psalms, or ecclesiastical hymns, the knowledge of which may be useful to the young” novice. “After this they have some free time, during which they can walk in the grounds, pray in the chapel, or rend some Life of the saints or other spiritual book. At 11.30 they assemble for ‘out-door manual works’… At 12.30 they return to the house, and at 12.40 the bell summons them to the chapel, where they spend fifteen minutes in prayer, and in examining their consciences… The dinner-bell rings at 1, and all repair to the refectory. During dinner a portion of Holy Scripture is read aloud and some useful and edifying book, the life of one of the saints, or the history of the Society. After dinner a short visit is made to the chapel, and an hour’s recreation follows. The occupations of the afternoon are a repetition of those of the earlier portion of the day… At 6 a second hour of meditation of half an hour has to be made in the chapel, after which the recital of some vocal prayers, and some free time which they can dispose of for themselves, bring them on to supper at 7.30. After this they have an hour’s recreation, during the first half-hour of which Latin has to be spoken. At 9, night prayers in the chapel; then fifteen minutes spent in the preparation of their meditation of the following morning, and after a final examination of conscience on their performance of the duties of the day all lights are put out by 10 P.M.”[23]R. F. Clarke, S. J.., “The Training of a Jesuit,” Nineteenth Century 40 (August 1896), 215-217. After two years of this training the Jesuits take their first vows and leave the novitiate. The whole point of the novitiate, and this is true in any religious order, is to train the junior member into obedience. In the words of Clarke, “to train him up in that spirit of implicit and unquestioning obedience which is the aim of the Society of Jesus to cultivate more than any other virtue in her sons, simply because it is the virtue that underlies all the rest, and without which no other virtue can attain its full perfection in the soul of man.”[24]Clarke, S. J.., “The Training of a Jesuit,” 219.

Having taken temporary vows, the young Jesuit “enters on quite a different life. His religious exercises are now confined to a comparatively small portion of the day. The main part of his time is now devoted to study. He still makes his morning meditation, hears Mass, examines his conscience twice a day, and spends a short time each day in spiritual reading and in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament; but the chief portion of the next five years is given up to intellectual cultivation.” Thus, the stages of Jesuit formation are two years in the novitiate, followed by “First Studies” or the Philosophate that involves two years of philosophy studies and a year of theology, while living in a Jesuit community at a university. Next comes the “Regency” period of two to three years of full-time ministry, often in a Jesuit-run high school, or sometimes in a Jesuit university or other Jesuit ministry. Only then does the Jesuit enter into the state of training called “Theology,” which is three years of theological studies leading to a Master of Divinity degree. Ordination to the priesthood usually takes place after the third year. In short, there is a lot of training for the Jesuit and Hopkins would have gone through all of these stages, with his philosophical formation done at St. Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst in Lancashire and his theology studies at St. Bueno’s College, near St. Asaph, Wales. His “Regency” or ministry involved teaching in London and Devon.

As we conclude, it is important to remind ourselves that Hopkins had given up writing his poetry just prior to entering the Jesuit novitiate. In fact, on May 7, 1868, before entering the Jesuits he burned his poetry, an event he refers to as the “slaughter of the innocents” in his journal.[25]White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 160. As dramatic as it sounds, its impact is lessened when we know that he had sent copies of these poems to his friend Robert Bridges. Nonetheless, he did not write poetry again for seven years, and only did so in response to a request from his Jesuit superior that he write a poem to commemorate the wreck on December 7, 1875 of the German ship the Deutschland. This reignited Hopkins’ craft of composing poetry and, of course, all of his spiritual and intellectual formation, going back to his days as a Tractarian Anglican through his Jesuit formation, factored into his rich, yet dense, poetry laden with spiritual imagery and theological sophistication. For example, notice the last stanza in “Dun Scotus’s Oxford,” written in Oxford in March, 1879:

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

With the phrase “Mary without spot” Hopkins is talking about the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Roman Catholic belief which asserts that Mary was preserved from the effects of original sin from the first instant of her conception. The Immaculate Conception was declared dogma only in 1854 but had been taught for centuries, including by the medieval Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus (d. 1308) whom Hopkins is commemorating in this poem. Scotus had traveled to France to defend the doctrine, hence Hopkins’ reference to France and his reference to Italy and Greece is to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. But the brilliance of Hopkins’ theological formation and poetical skill is in the phrase “Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not Rivalled insight.” The realty, or the reality is that Mary is the rarest-veinèd unraveller; that is, coursing through her veins is a special kind of blood, one that is not contaminated by original sin. Thus, as one who is immaculate (that is, without sin) she is able to help unravel the “knot” of original sin by giving birth to the incarnate Son of God. Notice Hopkins’ use of the word “not” which audibly sounds like “knot,” with a “k.” This harkens back to Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century when he wrote “that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary” (Adversus haereses 3.22.4). The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is, in fact, “a not Rivalled insight” but it also about Mary as the unraveller of this well-tied knot.

More examples could be given, of course, but time does not allow it. Unfortunately, Hopkins died young, at the age of 44 on June 8, 1889 depriving us of many years more worth of his theologically informed poetry.


1 Humphrey House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” Hopkins Quarterly 37 (2010), 115.
2 C. Brad Faught, The Oxford Movement: A Thematic History of the Tractarians and Their Times (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), ix.
3 R. David Cox, “Newman, Littlemore, and a Tractarian Attempt at Community,” Anglican and Episcopal History 62.3 (1993), 344.
4 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Letter to A. W. M. Baillie (March 1864); Claude Colleer Abbott, ed., Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, including his correspondence with Coventry Patmore (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), 60.
5 House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 116.
6 House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 117-118.
7 House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 119.
8 House, “The Youth of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1868,” 130.
9 Norman White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 111.
10 White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 111.
11 White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 124.
12 Cited in White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 125.
13 Hopkins, Letter to Dr. John H. Newman (August 28, 1866); Abbott, ed., Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 11.
14 White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 137.
15 White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 139.
16 White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 140.
17 White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 146.
18 Hopkins, Letter to A. W. M. Baillie (February 12, 1868); Abbott, ed., Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 84-85.
19 George E. Ganss, trans., The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1970), 66-67.
20 Ganss, trans., The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, 68.
21 Ganss, trans., The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, 69.
22 John W. O’Malley, “The Society of Jesus,” in Religious Orders of the Catholic Reformation: In Honor of John C. Olin on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday, ed. Richard L. DeMolen (New York: Fordham University Press, 1994), 157.
23 R. F. Clarke, S. J.., “The Training of a Jesuit,” Nineteenth Century 40 (August 1896), 215-217.
24 Clarke, S. J.., “The Training of a Jesuit,” 219.
25 White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, 160.
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