I have so much to say about Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I am so, so tired.  So I’ll just try to summarize it: he changed what people understood about poetry, meter, and the English language. Read his poetry out loud, or better yet, have someone read it to you.  He was a Catholic academic during a time in England when that pretty much destroyed academic careers.  He became a Jesuit priest and projected guilt issues onto his poems and burned them all at one point.  He referred to this as his very own “slaughter of the innocents.”  I could go on and on…he’s sort of like the English Emily Dickinson.  There’s great speculation that he was homosexual, but nothing conclusive, which biographers sweat and stammer over.

My favorite Hopkins story from Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life by Robert Bernard Martin is that Hopkins, as a child, bet a classmate on which of the two of them could go the longest without water. Hopkins managed to resist water until his tongue turned black.  This story is also on Wikipedia so all my extra reading is useless, apparently.

Here are some examples of his work.  Perhaps my favorite poem of all poems ever is “The Windhover”:

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Okay, so this is the Hopkins poem that everyone knows–but it’s that way for a reason.  I loved teaching this poem, because it’s hard for most students to understand “the message” of the poem, but it very easy to absorb the prosody behind the meaning.  This in turn seems to allow students to experiment with sound, form, meter, rhythm without killing the meat of a poem by fixating on expressing “an idea.”  Also this poem is lush and just  wonderful to have in your mouth.  Also the meaning as I see it: I’m a log for God.

The other great thing about Hopkins is that, although a priest, he took on doubt and mortality in a way that most skeptics could relate to:

(Carrion Comfort)

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

There’s another mini-masterpiece of sound.  For a lesson on phonics, this is a nice compliment to “The Windhover” as it’s easy to see the shift in fluidity and corresponding tone.  Here as Hopkins grapples with his faith, the sounds are all jagged and stuttered, mimicking his own tenuous exploration of doubt.

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