Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ

Manley Hopkins in 1888

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest and poet, (1844-1889) lived in St Beuno's for three years from 1874 to 1877, studying theology in preparation for the priesthood. During those years he wrote some of his best loved poems - a third of his mature poetry.

Hopkins was born in Stratford in Essex (now the East End of London) on 28th July 1844. His family moved to Hampstead when he was eight years old and a few years later young Gerard became a boarder at Highgate School only a few miles away. At Highgate he won the prize for English verse with his poem, The Escorial, and gained an Exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford. In Oxford he was awarded a 'double first' in Classics and the title 'the Star of Balliol'.

Gerard had been brought up in the Church of England, but in 1866 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by John Henry Newman. Two years later he applied to join the Society of Jesus and entered the noviceship in September 1868. Newman, approving his decision, wrote: "I think it is the very thing for you. Don't call the Jesuit discipline hard, it will bring you to heaven."

After a novitiate at Roehampton and a course in philosophy at St. Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst, he did a year of teaching. Then Hopkins came to St Beuno's to begin his study of theology in 1874.

He fell in love with Wales, its language and countryside. He learned Welsh, and even wrote verse in the language. He claimed that with a name like 'Hopkins' he looked on himself as half Welsh. He loved all the Celts.

Before joining the Jesuits, Hopkins on his own initiative, burned his early verse and decided to give up all beauty 'until I had His leave for it.' Self-denial, self-sacrifice and the search for God's will were three of Hopkin's chief characteristics, and he had resolved not to write poetry until his Superior give him permission. 

In December 1875 he was moved by the account in The Times of a shipwreck off the Kent coast in which many lost their lives, including five Franciscan nuns. The Rector's, doubtless with a twinkle in his eye, suggested that 'someone' ought to write a poem about the tragedy. Hopkins took up the suggestion and wrote The Wreck of the Deutschland. While the entire poem is strongly autobiographical, four lines in particular point the contrast between the calm he enjoyed at St Beuno's and the violence of the death-dealing storm:

Away in the loveable west,

On a pastoral forehead of Wales,

I was under a roof here, I was at rest,

And they the prey of the gales:

Hopkins' final year at St Beuno's College, 1876-7, was marked by an upsurge of creative activity as the climax of ordination drew nearer. Poetry simply poured out of him, including,God's Grandeur, The Starlight Night, In the Valley of the Elwy, The Sea and the Skylark, (written at Rhyl) and The Windhover, which he said, was the best thing he ever wrote.

Hopkins had the eye of an artist and it is easy to understand his early desire to be a painter. Yet his interest went further than wordpainting, however brilliant. For like the psalmist, he saw God all around him in creation. He could recognise Christ's beauty in a bluebell. So whether he walked the local footpaths, through the fields, climbed the hills, or fished the rivers, he was constantly catching glimpses of God. Striding through the golden stubble admiring the wild barbarous corn stooks ripening under a sky of silk-sack clouds, he exclaims:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, 

Down all that glory of the heavens to glean our Saviour.

Hopkins' aim was to Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver. In doing so he was putting into practice Ignatius' counsel, 'to place the whole affection on the Creator, loving Him in all creatures'.

After leaving St Beuno's, Hopkins worked on parishes in Oxford, Leigh Lancashire, Liverpool and Glasgow, and taught Classics for a time at Stonyhurst College. In 1884 he was appointed Professor of Greek at the Royal University, Dublin. He died there of typhoid in 1889 and is buried in the Jesuit grave in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.

God's Grandeur