Virtually none of his poetry was published during his lifetime. The major poems he did submit were rejected. He abandoned what could have been a privileged position at Oxford to become, much to his family’s horror, a Catholic. He was dogged by physical ailments. After he became a Jesuit, he was assigned to teach and preach, and he was not particularly successful at either. He finally landed at a Catholic university in Dublin, founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman, and after a few years came down with typhoid because of the contaminated water pipes. And there he died.
In 1917, a friend who had dutifully kept as many of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ (1844-1889) poems as he could published a volume of them, to generally little to no notice. In 1930, a second edition was published, and Hopkins’ poetry became something of a sensation, influencing W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Geoffrey Hill, and Seamus Heaney, among others. His place in the poetic pantheon has remained fixed since then, and what is clear about the poet is how much his faith is wrapped up in his poems.
The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Margaret Ellsberg and with a fine introduction by California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, focuses on Hopkins’ faith, and how it inspired and shaped. Editor Ellsberg does this in two ways. She provides informed summaries of the major developments in his life and work, and she includes the poet’s poems, journal entries, letters, and even sermon excerpts to provide the context.
What emerges is a whole and holistic picture of Hopkins and his poetry, and the central role played by his faith.
First is the consideration of some of the larger themes in Hopkins’ life and poetry The theme of nature, for example, is very strong, nature that is an expression of God. In fact, Ellsberg sees this as his “greatest greatest” among English poets – “his appropriation to nature to establish religious meaning.” He would see “inscapes” or patterns that “fastened him to God.”
Ellsberg then moves to some of the specific works. His first major poem was “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” an extended consideration of a shipwreck in which five Catholic nuns (among many others) drowned. Discussed are an overview of the event itself and how Hopkins approached it, and then the content and form he used to create the poem. Supplementing this are the letters he wrote to friends describing what he was working on.
This format continues for the consideration of his other poems, using both the editor’s narrative and Hopkins’ own writings about what he was doing. The full texts of the poems considered are included.
Ellsberg received her Ph.D. degree from Harvard University and teaches English at Barnard College. She has also published Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1987)and is an editor at Slapering Hol Press.
What the reader gets with the format and approach of The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins is the understanding of Hopkins’ faith in his poetic work, how the poems were written, and what was going on in his life and vocation. The net result is a wonderful introduction to the man and his poetry.