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Hopkins the poet

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex (now East London) in 1844. Educated at Highgate School in North London, he went on to Balliol College, Oxford. The university was the centre of High Anglicanism – a controversial movement in the second half of the 19th century – but to the consternation of his family Hopkins committed the ultimate rebellion for a young man of his day by “going over to Rome“. 


He was formally received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal Newman in 1866, but conversion was not enough for Hopkins. Set on becoming a priest, he joined the Society of Jesus, a hardcore order with its vows of poverty and obedience. It would take him out of the world he had grown up in and set him apart from his family and university friends for the rest of his life.

An outsider in society, Hopkins struggled to find his place as a Jesuit too. He had always been a keen poet, and even though the order frowned on such things, he toiled away privately composing verse in a radical system of metrics of his own devising. His most ambitious work, The Wreck of the Deutschland, was inspired by a tragic sensation of the day, when a ship carrying German emigrants to America was wrecked in the mouth of the River Thames. Hopkins was encouraged by his rector to a write a few lines on the affair, but the project grew in scale to become what he privately regarded his masterwork. Unfortunately, with its complicated syntax and unconventional form, it baffled all who saw it and his attempts to get it published in the Jesuit monthly journal failed.


Although Hopkins remained a Jesuit, he did not prosper in the order. His final posting was an academic one in Dublin, where he was isolated from his colleagues and plagued by ill health. He died of typhoid fever in 1889, aged just 44.


Virtually none of his poems were published in his lifetime. It was nearly 30 years after his death that his university friend Robert Bridges – who by that stage had become the poet laureate – published a collected edition. An expanded edition appeared in 1930 and by the middle of the 20th century Hopkins was regarded as a genius, years ahead of his time.


He is now known to generations of admirers as Gerard Manley Hopkins, but he rarely used his middle name, which he disliked, and was known as Gerard Hopkins or Gerry in his lifetime. Bridges decided to give him his full name when he came to publish to distinguish him from his brother’s son Gerard, who had been named after his dead uncle.

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