“My own heart let me have more pity on”

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poetic champion
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889)

Gerard Manley Hopkins deserves a special mention.  He’d be a poetic champion based solely on the fact he wrote some stunning poems, doing things with the language I’ve never seen anywhere else.

But he also labored in obscurity, published almost nothing during lifetime, and had to overcome inner conflicts over whether he should even be indulging in poetry at all.

He was born in 1842 into an artistic English family of devout High Anglicans.  A bright boy, he studied classics at Oxford, where he flourished as a poet and enjoyed a lively social life.  But he underwent a religious crisis and was drawn to Roman Catholicism.  He converted, to the consternation of his family, and eventually became a Jesuit priest.

During this period of turbulence, Hopkins was wracked with guilt and self-doubt.  He decided that poetry was too self centered.  So he burned his work.

Good thing for us, at Oxford he had formed a friendship with Robert Bridges (who eventually became the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom).  Hopkins had shared some of his poems with Bridges, so not all his early work was destroyed.

Hopkins later became more comfortable with using his poetic gifts and wrote a limited number of wonderful and innovative poems.  His more popular works are fairly well known.  “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover” deservedly make it into anthologies and are still studied today.

I love one of his early works called “Winter with the Gulf Stream.”  (Could it have been one that Bridges preserved from Hopkins’ bonfire?)  It’s not included in most collections of his work, but the first few lines knock me out:

The boughs, the boughs are bare enough
But earth has never felt the snow.
Frost-furred our ivies are and rough
With bills of rime the brambles shew.
The hoarse leaves crawl on hissing ground
Because the sighing wind is low.

I think Robert Frost must have had those lines in the back of his mind when he wrote “Reluctance”:

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

Probably my favorite of all Hopkins’ poems is the achingly beautiful “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.”  Take a look and see if you can read it without choking up a little.

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Bobby Ball

I love poetry. But I'm picky. No one pays me to read and write poems. It's more of a labor of love. I guess that puts me in good company. This is a project to discover why some poems strike you deep, deep down, while others leave you cold. I've got some ideas, and I'm eager to learn. I'll show you some of mine. Maybe we'll learn something new.

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