April 5, 2015


Praise Him : Celebrating the life and work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Joseph J. Feeney, 4/06/15, America)

Gerard Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844, in the London suburb of Stratford, Essex, the oldest child of nine in a comfortable Church of England family. His father, Manley Hopkins, owned a London firm that insured ships against shipwreck. But Stratford was soon industrialized, and when Gerard was 8, the family moved to Hampstead, a quiet, leafy London suburb. Young Gerard was a happy boy who loved to climb trees, joined in family prayers and wrote schoolboy poems. He went up to Oxford University in 1863, made many new friends, was a brilliant student of the classics and wrote more poems, including his first sonnets. Like all Oxford students, he went to Church of England services, but he gradually grew uncertain about his religion. He read, thought and prayed, talked with the famed convert John Henry Newman (later a cardinal) and became a Roman Catholic in 1866. In 1867 he won a "first"--Oxford's highest degree--in Greek and Latin classics, then went off to begin his life.

At Oxford Hopkins wanted to be both a painter and a poet, and after his conversion he also considered the Catholic priesthood. For eight months he taught at Newman's school in Birmingham--the Oratory School--then, deciding to be a priest, he became a Jesuit in 1868. As a novice in London he learned Jesuit life and prayer, then studied philosophy in Lancashire and theology at St. Beuno's College in North Wales. The first flashes of his poetic genius shone out at St. Beuno's in 1875, when he wrote his great shipwreck ode, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," and later 11 brilliant sonnets about nature and God. In 1877 he was ordained a priest at St. Beuno's and at the age of 33 became Father Hopkins.

For seven years he worked in Jesuit schools and parishes in England and Scotland, writing poems about the environment, about his students and parishioners (like the Liverpool blacksmith "Felix Randal") and about the Blessed Virgin Mary. He wrote lively sermons too. Once in Liverpool he compared the Holy Spirit to a cricket player urging a teammate, "Come on, come on!" As Paraclete, he told the congregation, the Holy Spirit "cheers the spirit of man...calling him on...: This way to do God's will, this way to save your soul, come on, come on!" The Holy Ghost as a cricket player? Hopkins had a most lively sense of humor!

In 1884 he was sent to Dublin as a professor of Greek in the new University College on St. Stephen's Green and as an examiner in the Royal University. He made many good friends in Ireland and enjoyed his teaching and his students but twice a year grew exhausted from grading hundreds of examination papers from all over the country. For months in 1885 he suffered from deep depression, even failing to contact God in prayer and wondering if he was losing his mind. He screamed out his pain in anguished--and brilliant--sonnets like "I wake and feel the fell of dark" and "No worst, there is none." After a few months he recovered from his depression, but in 1889 he contracted typhoid fever and died at the age of 44, seven weeks before his 45th birthday. People remembered him as a warm friend and fine priest, but he was unknown as a poet.

Posted by at April 5, 2015 7:06 PM

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