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God’s in the verse — 100 years of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry

This year we celebrate the centenary of the posthumous publication of the poems of Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).  Frances Correia argues that Hopkins’ work speaks to our contemporary religious search, spiritual desolation and our encounter with God in the world.

Jesuit spirituality’s premise, God’s presence in creation and our experience, echoes throughout Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry. Whether exulting in God present in nature or despairing his own frailty, even his own lack of faith, there is that deep sense of God intimately involved in the process.

I first encountered Hopkins in high school. Having read “God’s Grandeur”, while walking home I looked up with new intensity at the delicacy of the jacaranda trees’ mauve, fingery branches. That intense lyricism of Hopkins as he claims that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” affected me deeply. It was as if, in hearing his words, a latent awareness of God in nature burst into my heart. I saw the world with new eyes.

Hopkins’ poetry was to a great degree responsible for giving me both a framework and an invitation to seek the “finger” of God in nature. He drove me to seek and trust in the divine presence, “For I greet Him the days that I meet Him, and bless when I understand.”

Alternately, Hopkins’ “desolate sonnets” console those who grapple with faith, illness or depression. We resonate with the poet’s suffering in the plaintive, “To seem the stranger lies my lot”, or “To wake and feel the fell of dark not day.”

Anyone who has struggled with spiritual desolation, the sense of God’s absence while believing God is still there, has echoed Hopkins’ cry: “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?”.

I have found the raw pain and frustration with self that Hopkins so beautifully expresses profoundly consoling. When I have hung on the “cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” in my own mind, I have turned to these words that describe despair, desolation, and comfort.

In an era of social media soundbites’ emphasis on the immanent, transient and short, we seldom engage in depth with our inner lives.

Ironically religious tweets, Facebook posts or WhatsApp messages are particularly banal, both in their meaning and use of language. In contrast, Hopkins’ remarkably concise poetry offers profound ideas for our savouring. For instance the opening lines of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, “Thou mastering me / God! Giver of breath and bread; / World’s strand, sway of the sea; Lord of living and dead”. 

His poetry’s passionate intensity immediately grabs the heart, drawing one into deeper contemplation of meaning beyond language.

In an age of fundamentalism where Christianity too often offers simplistic answers to life’s great mysteries, with a bland set of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ responses, a poet such as Hopkins stretches our minds to explore the depths of faith.  His apparent ease at sitting with complex issues, with the same God who “hast bound bones and veins in me” who might be the one who has “almost unmade, what with dread, / Thy doing”, invites us into the contemplation of mystery. Often these are the mysteries of suffering and pain that are beyond our ability to ‘band-aid’ or explain away.

Contemporary populist narratives desire to frame the world into ‘us and them’: we are right, they are wrong. Hopkins subtly challenges this simplistic prejudice. In “As Kingfishers catch fire”, Hopkins presents this image of others: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

With a feather-light touch he reveals and reorientates the heart, encouraging us to see the good in the Other. This echoes Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius states that when Christians listen we should strive to put the best interpretation on what the other is saying, to have an attitude of openness and generosity in our engagements. This kind of attitude resonates through Hopkins poetry.

Moreover, though writing almost 150 years ago, Hopkins was already seeing the inherent dangers of industrialisation’s ecological cost. Like an early prophet his poetry asks us: “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”

In light of Laudato Si, I sense a theological understanding inherent in Hopkins’ writing that our attitude will change when we see all creation belonging to God and speaking to us of God. In the words of Pope Francis “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously” within us for the planet: “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew — / Hack and rack the growing green! / Since country is so tender / To touch, her being só slender, / that like this sleek and seeing ball / but a prick will make no eye at all”

Hopkins’ imagery suggests the earth being as vulnerable to touch as an eye, and that what we do to the earth can be as powerful as a stab to the eye, which may destroy it entirely.  It’s an intuitive grasp of the frailty of the planet which many of us are only now beginning to realise. The way we live, industrialisation and all of its goods, comes at a tremendous cost to the earth and all the other creatures with which we share the planet. In many places of the world we are the “after-comers” whom Hopkins says “cannot guess the beauty been”.

His poetry cries out for a change of lifestyle and renewed appreciation of the gift of nature in all its wonder.

For those seeking God, his sense of the divine indwelling in all things is a powerful reminder of the reality of faith. It is the outpouring of a soul alternately delighting in and desperately searching for God.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.