About Hopkins

Biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Oakhill Park, Hampstead. Plaque for Gerard Manley Hopkins

Born in Stratford, east London, on 28 July 1844, Gerard Manley Hopkins was the eldest of nine children and was brought up in a prosperous Anglican household. His father, Manley Hopkins, was a marine insurance adjuster as well as an amateur poet and composer, and his mother, Kate, was fond of music and literature and encouraged her children to follow the arts. The family moved to Hampstead in 1852, and from the age of ten, Hopkins attended Highgate School. In 1860 Hopkins composed his earliest known poem, ‘The Escorial’, which won the school’s Poetry Prize.

Balliol College, Oxford

In April 1863, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, with two Exhibitions (Highgate and Balliol), and while reading Classics began his lifelong friendship with Robert Bridges. Hopkins continued writing poetry at Oxford, but as his poem ‘The Half-Way House’ reveals, it was a time of religious turmoil for him. In July 1866, he became convinced that he should convert to Catholicism, and on 21 October 1866, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by John Henry Newman. In June 1867, Hopkins achieved First Class Honours in ‘Greats’, and then taught for eight months at Newman’s Oratory School, Birmingham.

Manresa House, Roehampton

Shortly after a retreat at Easter 1868, Hopkins decided to join the Society of Jesus, and entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Manresa House, Roehampton in September 1868. He burnt (as he thought) the manuscripts of his poems, and ‘resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession’. In September 1870, Hopkins took his first vows as a Jesuit, and began a three-year course of study at the Jesuit seminary St. Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst in Lancashire. While studying medieval philosophy there in 1872, Hopkins discovered the writings of Duns Scotus, the Franciscan theologian, whose metaphysical principle of individuation, or ‘thisness’, captured his religious imagination.

St Bueno's College, North Wales

From 1874 to 1877, Hopkins undertook his final Jesuit studies at St. Beuno’s College, North Wales, and enjoyed learning Welsh. In December 1875, in response to the death of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck, and encouraged by his superior, Hopkins wrote his groundbreaking ode, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, in which he incorporated his new ‘sprung rhythm’, and his deeply meditated Christian philosophy of life. Although Hopkins was disappointed when the Jesuit journal, the Month, rejected his poem, he now felt he could resume writing poetry without compromising his vocation. In 1877, he composed some of his most musical and joyous sonnets in praise of God and the beauty of nature, including ‘Spring’, ‘The Windhover’, and ‘Pied Beauty’, while in ‘God’s Grandeur’ and ‘The Sea and the Skylark’, he contemplated the ruthless effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Mount St.Mary's College, near Sheffield

Following his ordination to the priesthood in September 1877, Fr. Gerard Hopkins, S.J. taught at Mount St. Mary’s College near Sheffield, and assisted the parish priest. From July 1878 to September 1881, Hopkins served as a curate and occasional preacher in various parishes: Farm Street, London; St. Aloysius’s, Oxford; St. Joseph’s, Bedford Leigh; St. Francis Xavier’s, Liverpool; and St. Joseph’s, Glasgow.

St.Francis Xavier's, Liverpool

As a priest he was devout and conscientious, and his priestly poems were often inspired by his personal experiences of his parishioners and his parochial duties, for example, ‘The Handsome Heart’, ‘The Bugler’s First Communion’, and ‘Felix Randal’. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola were also an important formative influence on his poetry, sermons, and spiritual writings. In October 1881, Hopkins began his Tertianship at Manresa House, Roehampton, and after pronouncing his ‘final vows’ as a Jesuit in August 1882, he moved to Stonyhurst College to teach Latin and Greek to secular students studying for external degrees of the University of London. In 1883 and 1884, Hopkins had three letters published in Nature, which describe in vivid detail the dramatic atmospheric after-effects of the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa in August 1883.

Newman Jesuit College, Dublin

In February 1884, Hopkins moved to Dublin to become a Professor of Classics at the Jesuit’s new University College (formerly the Catholic University founded by Newman in the 1850s), and a Fellow at the recently established Royal University of Ireland, an examining institution. By 1885, he was exhausted by his workload of lectures, compounded by setting and marking six examinations a year for hundreds of candidates; he was also deeply worried about the Irish political situation. The dejection, anxiety and frustration he experienced are poignantly expressed in his letters, meditation notes, and the ‘terrible sonnets’. Nevertheless, Hopkins found respite in the vibrant musical community in Dublin, and from visiting friends in different parts of Ireland, such as the Cassidy family in Monasterevin.

Inscription on Glasvenin grave

In 1887 and 1888, he wrote some of his finest sonnets, including ‘Harry Ploughman’, ‘Tom’s Garland’, ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’, and ‘In Honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez’. Hopkins sent his last poem, ‘To R.B.’, to Robert Bridges in April 1889. On 8 June 1889, Hopkins died of an enteric illness thought to be typhoid, complicated by peritonitis. Three days later, he was buried in the Jesuit Plot, Prospect Cemetery, Glasnevin, Dublin.

After Hopkins’ death, Robert Bridges collected the many poems Hopkins had sent him, and although he did not edit them for almost thirty years, he finally published the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1918. Later editions followed in 1930 and 1949, and Hopkins is now recognized as one of the most influential poets of the Victorian era: an innovator in poetic language and rhythm. The publication of his diaries, journals, notebooks, letters, spiritual writings and sermons has given us a body of autobiographical and critical writing, which provides a valuable insight into his poetry, and sheds light on his spiritual life and his vocation as a priest.