G is for Gerard

I tried really hard to not make this post about Gerard Manley Hopkins, because I know that not very many people love Hopkins as much as I do. His language can be difficult, his poems are religious and his prose is not the most fun I’ve ever read. But then there was a quiet reference to one of my favorite Hopkins poems (“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief”) in the novel I’m reading at the moment (Michael Crummey’s Galore) and I decided I should write about Hopkins anyways.

I can’t claim anything but a novice understanding of Hopkins poetry and a rudimentary knowledge of the events of his life. I wrote one paper early in college on visual imagination in Hopkins and Keats, and I’ve skimmed various biographies of Hopkins, though most of what I know about him I learned from Ron Hansen’s novel, Exiles, which intricately combines the story of five Catholic nuns’ voyage aboard the Deutschland, a ship bound for America, with Hopkins’ reawakening to poetry after years of self-chosen exile from writing. Hopkins’ poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” was inspired by the wreck of that ship on a shoal in the Thames. More than a quarter of the boat’s two hundred passengers died, including all five of the nuns. Hopkins read about the wreck in a newspaper and was so moved by accounts of the drowning of five German nuns, exiled from their country because of their faith, that he wrote a 35-stanza poem about it. I’ve always loved this detail of his biography: 31-year-old Hopkins, seven years removed from burning all of his poems, so struck by a story related over a few columns of newsprint that he decided to try again to reconcile poetry with religion, to prove that he could be fully dedicated to the latter, while also practicing the first.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

One of the later stanzas begins “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;”. Who hasn’t had a moment like that, of feeling overtaken by simultaneity on a global scale, struck by the juxtaposition of moments that are both spectra apart from one another in any number of ways but that are also indisputably the very same moment in time?

In high school I wrote a poem about puddles forming during heavy rain in Rhode Island while thinking about the huge tsunami that struck Indonesia and other countries around the Indian Ocean in 2004. Hopkins’ poem is much better than mine, and well-worth any difficulty inherent to the verse. He’s one of the most rewarding poets I’ve ever read.


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