Poetry, said Yeats, is made out of a “quarrel with ourselves”. This statement seems to exemplify Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems, rife as they are with internal religious conflict. The two major conflicts or tensions in Hopkins’ verse are between aestheticism and asceticism, and between doubt and belief. The first of these tensions is due to the fact that Hopkins, as a Jesuit priest, always felt guilty for his love of beauty, creating in Hopkins what many critics call the poet-priest divide. The second is caused by the existence of suffering, which Hopkins struggles to reconcile with the idea of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. He is faced, like many other Christians, with the Problem of Evil. Perhaps these tensions explain why his style is so enigmatic: only through sprung-rhythm, neologisms, omissions, and idiosyncrasies could he reveal the struggles that wracked his soul. But Hopkins’ poetry does not simply present these two conflicts to the reader. As George M. Johnson argues, through poetry, Hopkins attempted to unify the divisive elements of his mind and to manage his “world within”. This arguably explains his use of the sonnet form: often, he presents a problem in the octave, and a solution in the sestet. So for Hopkins, poetry became a sort of literary therapy, a medium in which he attempted (not always successfully) to explain away or rationalize his various fears or doubts.
The tension between sensuousness and asceticism was a constant throughout the Victorian age. Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” shows the irony of materialism in a religious man, and Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market” demonstrates the danger of pursuing sensuous joy. But this conflict was exacerbated in Hopkins far more than in any other Victorian poet, arguably because of his upbringing: his father was allegedly autocratic, and his headmaster at Highgate was said to be a cruel tyrant. Hopkins escaped both of these authority figures, but he could never truly escape the self-accusatory spirit they had instilled in him, exemplified in his approach to beauty – he once wrote to Robert Bridges that certain kinds of beauty are “dangerous” and abandoned his wish to become a painter precisely because of this sentiment. This feeling that worldly beauty is somehow anti-religious is what led him to burn his poetry in 1868, just days after he decided to become a Jesuit. I.A. Richards is right in his assertion: “the poet in him was often oppressed and stifled by the priest”.
But seven years after the poetry-burning, Hopkins began writing once more. During the years of silence, Hopkins seems to have concluded that aestheticism and religion are not entirely incompatible. In this sense, he was particularly influenced by the thinking of Duns Scotus, whose concept of ‘haecceitas’ or ‘thisness’ is very similar to Hopkins’ theory of ‘inscape’ – “the outward reflection of the inner nature of a thing” (W.A.M. Peters). Scotus’ theories helped Hopkins to make his own sensuality more acceptable to himself and to link the world’s beauty with God, as in poems like “God’s Grandeur” – “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…” His poems seem to draw on various religious ideas, including the teleological (or design) argument and the concept of panentheism, most clear in Sonnet 57 where Hopkins writes: “Christ plays in ten thousand places…” Through these ideas, that beauty is representative of God’s skill and that God is in all of the world, Hopkins reconciled his love of the sumptuous world with his strict adherence to religious customs.
But these arguments by no means solve the tensions. Perhaps, to an extent, Hopkins’ poetry was simply a literary enactment of self-deception in which he wrote what he wanted to believe. Frederick Page argues along these lines, suggesting that Hopkins felt uneasy about his love of beauty and felt the “imperious necessity of connecting it with God…” Although Hopkins wrote poems like “Pied Beauty” in which he praises God for ‘fathering forth’ a variety of beauty, he also wrote “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”. The poem begins with a description of the “stupendous / Evening” with its “fond yellow hornlight”, but later Hopkins says: “… let life wind / Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety | upon, áll on twó spools”. These “twó spools” are “black, white” or “right, wrong”, and he warns us to “mind / But thése two…” Rather than beauty in nature, we could infer that he wants morality. So here the “counter, original, spare, strange” is replaced by the asceticism of simple monochrome, “black, white”.
We may also find a similar conclusion in his most famous poem, “The Windhover”, in which he describes the “mastery” of a kestrel’s flight. At the start of the sestet, the speaker says: “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” This word “Buckle” is the ambiguous crux of the poem. We do not know exactly what the word should be taken to mean, but if, as Robert Rehder argues, we take the word to be an imperative meaning ‘submit’, then Hopkins could be seen as rejecting the world’s outward beauty. When the bird does submit, the fire of God will be “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous…” If the bird (possibly a metaphor for Hopkins) buckles under God’s authority, its “brute beauty” becomes divine beauty. Of course, there are other interpretations, but this reading is succinct with the aesthetic-ascetic tension we see in Hopkins’ letters, and it also answers the question of the two comparatives, “lovelier, more dangerous” – the change will come in rejecting superficialities and embracing spiritualties. And so, we can see that, despite adopting Scotist thought, and despite attempting to rationalise his inner conflicts through poetry, his anxieties about sensuousness never truly disappeared.
The other major tension in Hopkins’ work is that of doubt and belief and the attempt to understand suffering. This conflict is most evident in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, in which Hopkins tries not only to understand the suffering of those on the ship, but also to come to terms with his own suffering during his conversion. He compares himself to “soft sift / In an hourglass,” with God (the hourglass) sifting and testing him. The suffering we experience, he argues, can either bring “the best or worst” out of us. Like with a sloe that bursts “sour or sweet” in our mouths, we can either submit to God in the face of suffering, or we can reject him. God must “Wring thy rebel… / Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm,” and so encourage sinners to beg for salvation. Hence, he is “lightning and love,” both authority and mercy, and it is through his authority that we come to find his mercy – we are like metal on an anvil to be shaped to “thy will”. This blacksmith imagery recalls Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” which begins with the emphatic words “Batter my heart…” as Donne begs God to save him, through his mastery, from the devil.
In this way, “The Deutschland” is a theodicy in which Hopkins explains suffering as teleologically good – we suffer in order to find God. Hopkins clarifies the nun’s cry in the same way: though God did not rescue her, by her cry and by her belief in Christ’s agency, she “reincarnated Christ afresh, brought his real presence, alive, into the scene of the shipwreck.” (Helen Vendler) And so, because of Christ’s presence, the others who drowned on the Deutschland are “not uncomforted” – the nun’s cry brought “the poor sheep back” and the shipwreck became “a harvest” of souls for God. The shipwreck brought faith to the faithless, a theodicy which justifies the deaths of those on the ship. At the end, Hopkins hopes that the same faith will be instilled in the people of England and “be a dayspring to the dimness of us”. The same can be said for some of Hopkins’ other poems. In “Felix Randal”, Hopkins grieves at the death of his parishioner – “O is he dead then?” But again he explains this suffering with another theodicy, arguing that “seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears” and that through his sickness, Randal went from his “boisterous years” to a man with “a heavenlier heart”. Again, Hopkins argues that suffering led Randal to God, and so we see that many of his poems are an exercise in rationalising pain.
However, Hopkins shows more doubt in “The Loss of the Eurydice”, which begins: “The Eurydice – it concerned thee, O Lord…” (the rhyme of Eurydi-ce and thee emphasising God’s culpability). Hopkins cannot understand why God would let three hundred brave men die – “I need to deplore it.” He struggles to find an explanation, and he grieves that these men were not Catholics, though good men. The only hope he proposes is that suffering leads men to drive “full for righteousness”, and he implores the people of England to pray that those on the ship may be granted “pity eternal”. This doubtfulness recurs in the ‘Terrible’ sonnets, poems written in a time of deep distress, when his state was “much like madness.” Vincent Turner says this distress was due to “the sight of physical and moral evil” in the world, and most importantly, the suffering Hopkins himself experienced. In “Carrion Comfort” Hopkins questions why God would “rude on” him his “wring-world right foot rock” and “lay a lionlimb” against him. But he justifies this with another theodicy, employing the metaphor of harvest. He is buffeted like corn in the wind so that his “chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” Suffering is necessary for the harvest, and this again recalls the imagery of “The Deutschland”.
But Hopkins is not always so successful in explaining away his pain. In “To seem the stranger” he laments that “dark heaven’s baffling ban / Bars” his words and so, without his poetry and his ability to rationalise his suffering, he is left “a lonely began”. In “I wake and feel the fell of dark” he reaches a similar stalemate, the only comfort being that “The lost are like this… but worse.” He, at least, believes in God, even though his cries are “like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.” Here, as before, we see that Hopkins could never completely overcome these conflicts. Johnson argues that “By hammering out his emotions… into the sonnet form, Hopkins can manage to a degree the cries which well up from within.” But the doubts were always present in him, and poetry often failed to aid him. Though he tried to understand what Jennings calls “the ennobling power of suffering”, he could never really reconcile himself to “the blight man was born for” (“Spring and Fall”).
To an extent, then, Hopkins was rather like T.S. Eliot, though the comparison seems unusual. In The Waste Land, Eliot searches for hope in this “stony rubbish”, and he finds that hope in “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” And yet, because of all that has come before, Eliot’s romantic conviction that a better world is possible if we ‘give, sympathise, control’ seems somewhat forced. Certainly this is what Eliot hopes: but does he believe it could happen? Perhaps we can say the same about Hopkins’ rationalisations and theodicies: he wants to believe that aestheticism can be reconciled with religion, and he wants to believe that suffering is part of God’s plan. Whether he really believes his arguments, though, is uncertain, and this uncertainty is augmented by the fact that, in poems like “Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves” and “To seem the stranger”, he can find no justification for sensuous delight and he can find no explanation of his suffering. And so it’s clear that, throughout his life, Hopkins was haunted by these tensions, and he tried to resolve them through poetry. J Hillis Miller argues that poetry must “make something happen.” Hopkins’ poetry often tried to make something happen, namely the conclusion of his inner conflicts. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes he failed. But he is no less a poet for that.