UK Hopkins Society Weekend at Belmont Abbey 7 – 9 June 2019: “New Worlds”
(from the opening line of Thomas Traherne’s poem “On leaping over the moon” – “I saw new worlds beneath the water lie”).
Hopkins visited the Abbey in June 1866 with William Addis. It was possibly the first time he had met a Catholic priest, Dom Paul Raynal, who ‘was very kind and showed me over everything.’ Hopkins returned to spend Holy Week there in 1867, so it was an important place in Hopkins’ spiritual growth.
The weekend commenced on the evening of Friday 9th with “The cost of conversion”, a presentation by Jill Robson, Lance Pierson amongst others to explore this critical time when Hopkins converted to Catholicism. His visit to Belmont Abbey was an important part of that process.
Saturday 10th June commenced with the AGM: membership numbers have fallen with the recent rise in annual membership fees and some society members getting older and felling less able to attend events. Members of the Steering Committee were at pains to point out that membership doesn’t just include the opportunity to attend events to celebrate Hopkins life and poetry, but includes the annual Hopkins Society Journal and the opportunity to feel part of a movement of people with a like minded appreciation of Hopkins. Some discussion took place about the need to widen membership and hence ensure greater viability of the Society. The Steering Group has already commenced efforts to widen membership.
The AGM was followed by a most illuminating lecture by Jude Nixon who is co-editor of Volume 5 of the OUP’s Collected Works. Jude’s lecture was titled “Hopkins in the North: Priestly and Parish Activities in Leigh and Liverpool”. Jude provide the social and economic context to Hopkins position as priest. The congregation at Leigh, although friendly was experienced by Hopkins as largely drunken and dissolute with large families struggling with working long hours on low wages, and coping with ill health, particularly typhoid which has since been associated with unhealthy drinking water. The drinking water then was often replaced with copious amounts of beer. Few poems were written while Hopkins served in both parishes. Jude pointed out that this was probably as a result of the sheer amount of work involved amidst the misery of town life amongst the poor: he listed the number of weddings, baptisms and other parish duties that Hopkins undertook. This all took a toll on his health.
During Saturday afternoon, following a brief presentation of material relating to Hopkins and Belmont Abbey: the Benedictine’s place in the development of Hopkins religious vocation, the group had a tour of the abbey and a talk about it’s history in the Benedictine order. The founder was Francis Wegg-Prosser of nearby Belmont House, who had converted to Catholicism and decided to build a church on his Hereford estate in 1854. He later invited the Benedictines to found a priory there. The Abbey Church is a grade II listed building, designed by Edward Pugin, son of Augustus Pugin. Its construction began in 1857 and it was consecrated on 4 September 1860. Built in the early English style, it demonstrated the resurgent optimism of the restored Catholic Hierarchy and the growth in numbers of Roman Catholics in England in the second half of the 19th Century. .
During late Saturday afternoon, Richard Willmott, Chair of the Traherne Society was welcomed to provide a talk entitled “Seeing the world aright – charged with the grandeur of God”. Thomas Traherne, (1637 – 1674) was born in Hereford, spending most of his life in the vicinity. Like Hopkins he was on fire with the love of God, believing that God had created the world as a gift to humankind and that like Hopkins was a priest poet on fire with the love of God, especially as seen and experienced in the world created by God as a gift to each member of the human race. Richard opened up to his audience the poetry and the range of the writings of Thomas Traherne plus a little of his very positive theology. Throughout, his talk drew parallels with the work of Hopkins. The evening was completed with readings of Hopkins and Traherne on the subject of “God in creation” – showing that despite living some 200 years apart and in different religious worlds they held many of their theories and ideas in common. Hopkins would have been unaware of Traherne’s works’s; the latter’s works remained hidden in unread manuscripts until the 20th century.
During the entirety of our visit, members were given the opportunity to join in abbey services. As the Sunday was Whit Sunday, the church was beautifully decorated for the services, which frequently incuded Pentecostal elements. The Abbey church incidentally has always operated as the local parish church.
Sunday morning allowed participants either to attend mass or to take part in one of two walks, which Hopkins recorded his delight in. He is known to have walked to Belmont from Hereford along the river and also around the Cathedral Close. Members too enjoyed walking over the same ground, besides the River Wye, and the splendid views of Hereford Cathedral and its medieval architecture.