Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. can perhaps be best described using Winston Churchill’s barbed attack on Russia, made in a radio broadcast in October 1939. He famously depicted Russia as, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.  Studying Hopkins’s poetry can leave us in much the same frame of mind as Churchill!  Hopefully what follows will provide you with a key to help unlock the enigma!

He was born in Stratford, Essex in 1844 and educated at Highgate School and at Oxford, where he became a friend of the poet, Robert Bridges.  He was very influenced by the Oxford Movement and he was drawn towards Newman and eventually, like Newman, he converted and became a Roman Catholic.  Hopkins didn’t do things by halves and he went on to join the priesthood, not just the ‘ordinary priesthood’ either but he joined the Jesuits and was ordained in 1877.

Shortly after joining the Jesuits he resolved not to write any poetry unless asked to do so by his Superiors.  This is in fact what eventually happened: his Rector suggested that he should write a poem to commemorate five Franciscan nuns who had been drowned in a boating accident on the Thames.  The result was his great poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, which he completed in 1875.

He wrote steadily for the rest of his life, but made no effort to publish, being content with the opinions of Robert Bridges and a few intimate friends.  Following ordination he worked as a priest in the slums of London, Liverpool and Glasgow, eventually coming to Dublin Catholic University (now UCD) where he was professor of Greek.

He died of typhoid fever in 1889 and he is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.  His work was first collected and published by Robert Bridges in a selected edition in 1918 and he became an overnight success 29 years after his death!  His poetry was swiftly recognised for its great freshness and energy.  So, even though he lived and died in the nineteenth century, Hopkins has become one of the great poets of the twentieth century!

Hopkins was a very original poet.  He abandoned the traditional metres and substituted his own innovative ‘sprung rhythm’, where the stresses responded to the meaning rather than to any mechanical pattern.  He used words in new and startling combinations and frequently dispensed with definite articles, conjunctions and even verbs.  As with all great poets this language was not invented for its own sake, but to get across a deeply personal and passionate response to the world and its Creator.  Since 1918 his reputation has risen steadily, and he is now rightly regarded by many as the greatest of the Victorian poets.

He once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility, but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.  He also said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’.

In Roddy Doyle’s novel The Van, Darren, studying Hopkins’s poetry for the Leaving Cert., reads one of the poems and wonders when Tippex had been invented and concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’

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  • The world of nature pulses with energy because it is charged with the grandeur of God.
  • Spring is a glimpse of what the Garden of Eden must have been like.
  • Everything in existence has its own unique identity and inscape. It is possible to recognise God’s design in every natural object.
  • Contrast (dappled things) and variety set off the beauty of things.
  • Unspoilt nature (the weeds and the wilderness) is a precious resource.
  • Humankind’s sinfulness and the Industrial Revolution have made us insensitive to the beauty and preciousness of the natural world.
  • Despite the destructive activities of humankind, the Holy Ghost protects and renews the natural world.


  • Humankind’s sinfulness brings it suffering and toil.
  • Acceptance of God’s will brings comfort and relief from pain.
  • Spiritual desolation is a bottomless pit of suffering.
  • The worst form of suffering, outside of Hell, is the desolation caused by self-disgust.
  • Suffering is a mystery understood fully by God alone.


  • God makes himself known to us through the world of nature and in the faces of people.
  • He is the ‘dearest freshness’ that permeates the natural world.
  • Only through the submission of our will to the will of God can we truly reveal our inner beauty.
  • God has made us the gift of natural beauty, with all its variety.
  • Humans are insignificant beings who have been rescued from death and oblivion by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
  • God’s will is a mystery to us.


What about some of the following?  Energetic, intense, concentrated in meaning, obscure, tortuous, original, musical, dramatic, oratorical, erudite, demanding………




(It is not essential to have an understanding of these concepts to appreciate the poetry of Hopkins.  If your reading of these notes enhances your understanding of the poet’s work, then they are worth reading; otherwise, they are a hindrance.)

 In our modern world we are familiar with the idea of each human being having a unique genetic code or DNA.  Hopkins’s theory was that everything in God’s creation had its own unique characteristics.  If you look closely at an object and if you have the sensitivity to recognise its unique character, the object will reveal its ‘inscape’ or, if you like, its inner landscape.  Finding the object’s form and shape, both external and internal, is the same as finding its inscape.  One of the reasons Hopkins abandoned the idea of being an artist was that he found that he could not ‘capture’ the inscape of things in his drawings.

‘Instress’, according to Hopkins, is the energy of God pulsating through all created things (‘The world is charged with the Grandeur of God’).  It is a coherent force, coherent because it comes from a single source.  He sees the inscape and feels the instress.  ‘All things are upheld by instress and are meaningless without it.’

Essentially, what Hopkins was attempting to do with the words ‘instress’ and ‘inscape’ was to provide a theory on the way in which objects, natural or human, create a reaction in the person who is looking at them.  He believed that what he saw was contained in the object rather than a result of his imaginative interpretation of that object.  He believed that the impact of that object on him was due to the object rather than to his subjective response to it.  ‘I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people (like Leaving Cert. Students!) and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it.’

‘The Windhover’ provides an excellent example of these two concepts.  The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’).  This, however, is only part of the process.  The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’).  There is more.  The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’.  T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’  It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.


By the time Hopkins’s poetry was published in 1918, many poets had already begun to dispense with regularity and rules regarding rhythm; nevertheless Hopkins’s revolutionary experiments with rhythm inspired many modern poets to be more daring and unconventional in their approach to composition.  Of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ Hopkins wrote: ‘I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper.’  He called this new rhythm ‘sprung rhythm’, because it springs naturally.  It has the following characteristics:

  • There is a fixed number of feet (rhythmic units) per line.
  • Each foot has one stressed syllable.
  • The stressed syllable may stand on its own, or may be accompanied by any number of unstressed syllables. Hopkins summed this up very well when he wrote: ‘One stress makes one foot, no matter how many or how few the syllables.’

He developed sprung rhythm because he believed that ‘it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech.’  He added that ‘my verse is less to be read than heard….It is oratorical, that is, the rhythm is so.’

One of the natural consequences of allowing any number of unstressed syllables in a line is that it generates energy.  Unstressed syllables must be uttered quickly.  The more there are in a line, the more energetic the line will be.  This has a clear value for a poet who sees the world of nature as charged with the energy of God.

Sprung rhythm is used most blatantly in ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ and ‘The Windhover’, both of which vibrate with the energy of the natural world.  ‘Felix Randal’ also employs sprung rhythm extensively; other poems contain elements of it.


To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation.  Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine.  Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape.  Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instressSprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.



(As a member of the Jesuit order – the same order, it must be remembered, who were responsible for Joyce’s education at Clongowes and later at University – Hopkins was devoted to God and his poetry is a unique record of that devotion.  In the twentieth-century several critics praised his efforts to restore ‘freshness in words’ and others came to recognise in Hopkins one of the most powerful religious poets writing in the English language.)

Though he lived and died in the nineteenth century, Hopkins is frequently considered a twentieth-century poet, not because his poems were not published until 1918 but because of their startling and unique style.  It has been said that Hopkins was a Victorian in that he was serious, scrupulous, hard-working and set himself exacting ideals, but in his remarkable poetic innovations he was ahead of his time.  His poetry was misunderstood, unappreciated, unknown during his lifetime and, even though he had a strong sense of duty and believed in self-sacrifice, he also had an independence of spirit that is evident in his work.  He did not write for an audience nor did he follow the contemporary literary fashion.  Hopkins, says Robert Bernard Martin, ‘is constantly more concerned with putting across his perceptions than with fulfilling customary expectations of grammar … Most persistent readers of his poems learn to abandon their usual demands of convention in language, in order to enjoy a fuller poetic process than would otherwise be possible.’   Coventry Patmore, however, found that Hopkins’s poetry had the effect of ‘veins of pure gold imbedded in masses of unpredictable quartz’.  As mentioned earlier Roddy Doyle in his novel The Van, has Darren, studying Hopkins’s poetry for the Leaving Cert and when he reads one of the poems, wonders when Tippex had been invented and concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’

And his poetry, though written in the nineteenth century, had an extraordinarily important influence on twentieth-century poetry.  It was not so much that other poets imitated Hopkins; rather they were empowered to develop and explore their own individuality.  His style was fresh and free and dazzlingly different. (!)  Robert Bridges, Britain’s Poet Laureate, was Hopkins’s contemporary (both were born in 1844) and friend.  It was Bridges who first published Hopkins’s poetry in book form in 1918 and an early reviewer of the poetry said that, ‘You fight your way through the verses yet they draw you on’, that the language, at times, created ‘an effect almost of idiocy, of speech without sense and prolonged merely by echoes’.  But that same reviewer, in 1919, claimed that Hopkins’s poetry contained ‘authentic fragments that we trust even when they bewilder us’.

He always claimed that things are more beautiful in movement, as in the flight of the kingfisher, shooting weeds, the windhover, Felix Randal beating iron out, or the mountain stream ‘His rollrock highroad roaring down’.  And he loved the distinctness in all things; each must be the individual that it is, as in ‘As Kingfishers catch fire’.  He loved the uniqueness of things, the ‘individually distinctive.’   He called this quality INSCAPE.  Another principle, that of INSTRESS was used by him to convey his understanding of the energy which made possible this uniqueness (‘It is the virtue of design, design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive’ wrote Hopkins in a letter to Bridges).  Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, sums it up as follows: ‘Inscape is manifest, instress divine, the immanent presence of the divine in the object.’

Hopkins, says Seamus Heaney, is a poet who brings you to your senses.  The reader sees and hears the ‘hereness-and-nowness’ of the moment but the sounds also match the poem’s tone and mood.  Hopkins believed that ‘my verse is less to be read than heard….it is oratorical, that is the rhythm is so’.

When he looks at nature, his involvement with what he sees is total but it is never a celebration of nature for its own sake; Hopkins saw nature as an expression of God’s grandeur.  His poetry is inspired by his love of God and God’s creation.  He is a poet of extraordinary highs.  The imagination soars in a poem like ‘The Windhover’ but he is also a poet who is capable of writing the bleakest poetry about the depths of despair in The Terrible Sonnets.

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‘Hopkins’s imagery impresses us with its originality and its range.’  Discuss this view using a selection of poems by Hopkins on your course.

Hopkins is regarded as an innovator.  He innovated in many ways in his poetry and one primary instance of this innovation occurred in his use of language.  The world surrounded Hopkins with visions of God’s glory and the poet responded by capturing those moments in imagery that is ostensibly original and quite remarkable in its range.  Hopkins’s imagery serves one of two main purposes: to record and communicate the beauty of nature and its Creator or to reveal the anguish of a desolate soul that feels isolated from God.  In the early poetry, Hopkins employs imagery to expose God’s glory in nature’s elements while the later poetry gives us dramatic images of desolation and despair.

He opened an early poem of celebration, ‘God’s Grandeur’,  with the line: ’The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ and it seemed it was not too difficult for this sensitive poet to confirm this in the world around him.  In ‘Pied Beauty’ he also praises God for his creation when he says, ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’.  Hopkins, therefore, did not accept nature’s glories in any bland or pedestrian way.  Rather, he responded to them with imagination and freshness to create images that are strikingly original and at times quite inventive.

In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty.  The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging with the poet’s spirit through the steady air.  The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight.  God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’.  These images carry connotations of medieval romance and chivalry, and perhaps the virtuous struggle of the falcon in the air is symbolic of the Christian knight, Christ the chevalier, overcoming the pervasive threat of evil.  This conflict in the poem is dramatised through imagery that suggests the supremacy of the falcon in flight, and his control and mastery that ‘rebuffed the big wind’.  Another feature of Hopkins’s images here is the way in which they are loaded with possibilities.  It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way.  For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of as horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein.  However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird.  Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem.  What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility.

Hopkins uses a very different image in describing the precision of the falcon’s flight, where he says, ‘As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend’.  This image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight.  Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour.  In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’.  Such remarkable and wide ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn.  More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight.  There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter.  However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery.

However, particularly in his Terrible Sonnets, there is another, more disturbing effect created by Hopkins’s wide ranging use of imagery. We know that he wrestled with doubt, particularly during his final years which he spent teaching in Dublin.  God exists, he is always certain of that, but why does he appear to be so far away, apparently unresponsive and uncaring to a man whose letters are ‘dead’?  Hopkins’s increasingly sinister images explore the bounds of human suffering and despair.  In the sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’, for example, the conspicuous absence of daylight reminds us how far the poet has come from the glorious sunshine and colour in ‘Spring’, ‘God’s Grandeur’ or ‘The Windhover’.  There is little evidence of ‘couple-colour’ in ‘the black hours’ Hopkins has spent with his torment, suffering ‘yet longer light’s delay’.  The delay of light represents of course the delay of hope – all is now ‘gall’ and ‘heartburn’.  Quite remarkably, taste is evoked as a description of the poet’s state.  He becomes bitterness itself, borne out of his despair.  Yet, perhaps this is God’s will that he suffer the ‘curse’ with which his ‘bones’ and ‘flesh’ must contend.  But the poet’s tormented spirit is souring dough, which needs to be infused with spiritual ecstasy.

In his sonnet ‘No worst, there is none’, Hopkins outlines the intensity of his pain in the opening quatrain and then proceeds to seek significant comfort, but in vain.  This sonnet is particularly interesting in that many of its images echo through earlier poems where the mood was less despondent.  The poet’s sense of despair is emphasised in quatrain two in an unusual but particularly poignant image of his cries heaving ‘herds-long’, gathering at the gate of heaven perhaps but not being admitted or even acknowledged.  Where is the comfort that Hopkins himself had administered to Felix Randal?  The poet then refers to an ‘age-old anvil’, a sounding board which winces and rings out his pain. This very original image of the anvil reminds us again of Felix and his work in the forge, except on this occasion the poet is the raw material that Christ is beating into shape.  In the sestet, the poet refers to a natural landscape, the mountains.  In earlier poems, ‘wilderness’ filled him with joy.  Here, however, the steep cliffs, a nightmarish metaphor, represent the spiritual torment and physical suffering that the poet has had to endure, day in, day out.  The only comfort is the relief of sleep.  But in ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’ the poet awakens to the oppressive darkness of night and yearns for the respite of daylight.  The dark night is itself symbolic of dark periods in the poet’s life when hope of spiritual ecstasy may have seemed very distant.

In Hopkins’s poetry, therefore, the range of imagery is certainly quite extensive, his originality unquestioned.  Imagery ignites the poet’s celebration and it ignites his desolation.  In the darkness, there is no flash of colour, of light, no ’dapple-dawn-drawn’ inspiration to lift his thoughts, no sparks, no flashes, no gold.  In 1889, only weeks before his death, Hopkins wrote ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’.  In the poem images of fertility in nature abound: building, breeding, waking, growing.  The poet, however, is depicted in the sterile image of a ‘eunuch’.  Nonetheless, the concluding appeal, expressed again through a vivid and most appropriate image, is that as Spring renews nature, so God may send his ‘roots rain’.  Where there is prayer, there is hope!


  1. What impression of Hopkins the man do you get from his poetry?
  2. Is it necessary to admire the author to admire his work?
  3. Does the poet’s profound faith make it easier or more difficult for you to relate to his work?
  4. If you had the opportunity to interview Hopkins, what questions would you ask him?
  5. What do you like or dislike about the way Hopkins writes poetry?
  6. Do you think that the themes of his poetry have relevance in the modern world?
  7. Put forward an argument why Hopkins’s poetry should be retained on, or removed from, the Leaving Certificate course?