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Poetry and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges

St Peter and St Paul Church Yattendon, with the Bridges family cross in the foreground

On Thursday the 27th of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on Gerard Manley Hopkins to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the first part of my contribution to the evening.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges were born three months apart in the year 1844. Their families were devoutly religious, also inspired by the movement of reform within the English Church which we today call Anglo-Catholicism. The Hopkins family attended High Anglican churches, including All Saints’ Margaret Street in London, a church designed and built by William Butterfield, the same architect who designed the cathedral down the hill from here near the Yarra River.

The books tell us Hopkins and Bridges met at university, but they were moving in the same social and cultural circles for years, taking in the same air. In a previous generation Hopkins’ grandfather went to school with the poet John Keats.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

These lines of Keats had become a dogma of English Romanticism. They signal the genesis of a whole way of thinking, judging, and acting that we associate with names like Ruskin, Rossetti, Pater, Pugin, Arnold, Wilde, and, irresistibly we might say, Hopkins and Bridges. Keats cannot be held responsible for the Oxford Movement, and yet when we observe the reclamation of aesthetic values in the expression, language, and worship of the English Church, ‘the beauty of holiness’ is an affirmed and central object of both our poets. It is more than theme and ideal, it is its own meaning.

They were both classicists. Bridges was to write lengthy and increasingly unusual poems on subjects from classical mythology during his long life. Hopkins was to finish up as a Professor of Greek in Dublin during his short life. Their poetic was deeply formed by classical poetry, as revived by Victorian scholarship.

But they were also both what today we call medievalists, influenced by the Victorian revival of everything gothic. Bridges yearned for a pre-industrial England and a pre-imperial English language, free of the foreign imports adopted by the first global language. Hopkins’ sprung rhythm relies inordinately on the alliteration of Anglo-Saxon and medieval Welsh poetry, and on the timbre of Shakespeare.

This is all one happy symptom of their broader passion for the English language, in terms of poetic play, linguistic invention, and word derivation. They are true poets in their total intoxication with words.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Having registered their poetic complicity, we then have to meet the difficult reality of the essential subject of their poetry, which is God as revealed in Christ. They are a living contradiction of the Victorian commonplace of loss of faith as exemplified in, say, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy.

Hopkins’ conversion to Roman Catholicism, under the guiding hand of no less a person than John Henry Newman, was a dramatic surprise to all. His father thought he had “gone mad”, and Gerard’s letters to his parents remind us painfully of just what a headstrong and conceited 22-year-old is capable. The choice between the Rule of Saint Benedict or Saint Ignatius vexed him briefly, but he went with Ignatius, and with that the social and religious disadvantages Victorian England imposed. His letters are gloriously knowledgeable, but we cannot help noticing that most of his fervent literary communication continues with Anglicans, not Catholics. More surprising, from our distance, is his subsequent (not to say consequent) destruction of all his manuscripts, an act recorded in his diary for 11 May 1868 with the macabre joke, “the slaughter of the innocents”.

It has been observed that Hopkins, unlike Bridges and other Romantic poets, did not privilege poetry as a vocation. He already had a vocation: he was a priest. Like Thomas Merton, Hopkins could not see how his writing could fit into his newfound life. This may have continued were it not for news of a shipwreck, that favourite motif of gothic literature, in the Thames Estuary in which five nuns were amongst those who drowned. Hopkins’ provincial superior, a canny individual if ever there was one, hinted that someone should write a poem about this terrible event. When Hopkins took up the challenge, he used his immense poetic gift and accumulated theories about poetry, to enunciate his own true vocation, to Christ.

Hopkins died too young. We will never know how much he actually wrote and how much he threw into the fireplace, but he directed that his estate be left either to the care of family or to his closest literary confidant, Robert Bridges. Families being what they are, they probably had no idea or interest in exactly what to do with Gerard’s fanciful words, so the words went to Bridges.

While conjecture continues to this day about why Bridges took thirty years to publish a collection of the most original poetry in English, this conflicted inheritance overlooks their joint achievement as experimenters of style, and of style trained deliberately to express special versions of Christian vision.    

For me, this is the most remarkable thing about their friendship. They were both preoccupied, as few others of their contemporaries were in quite the same way, with stress. Hopkins’ single-minded focus on the stress of words and syllables in the line is seen and heard everywhere.

To what serves mortal beauty ' —dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood—the O-seal-that-so ' feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? ' See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; ' what good means—where a glance
Master more may than gaze, ' gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh ' windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, ' have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation ' dealt that day’s dear chance.
To man, that needs would worship ' block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are ' love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest—men’s selves. Self ' flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? ' Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; ' then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, ' God’s better beauty, grace.

But this was never simply ornate show, embellishment for its own sake, or lilting loveliness typical of other flowery types of the time. The words enact meaning, they send out double and triple meanings, nouns become like verbs and vice versa in a dramatic deployment. The result is a poetry so charged that readers , Bridges included, it was freakish. Hopkins was reviving stress as found in Shakespeare and Milton, it was English at its most enforced, enlivened.

Bridges could not fully understand himself what Hopkins was really trying to do, but meanwhile was cultivating a kind of poetry which is almost free of the demands of stress. No less a reader than W.H. Auden could say in the early 1970s, and admiringly, that “So far as I know, Bridges was the first to write quantitative verse in English which ignores stress altogether.” His ‘Testament of Beauty’ is written in accent-free verse counted by the syllables, something that today is more the norm than the exception.

Today we are more likely to meet Bridges in church than in a café, more likely to know his translations than his inspirations. The New English Hymnal, the one we use next door, lists ten hymns by Bridges translated from ancient Greek, Latin, and German. This places him firmly in the line of Victorian hymnographers like John Mason Neale. He was choir master of his local church and wrote a hymnbook there, the Yattendon Hymnal. And just to show what Bridges can do in quantitative verse, I am going to read one of his finest renditions.

All my hope on God is founded;
  He doth still my trust renew,
Me through change and chance he guideth,
  Only good and only true.
    God unknown,
    He alone
  Calls my heart to be his own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
  Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
  Tower and temple fall to dust.
    But God's power,
    Hour by hour,
  Is my temple and my tower.

God's great goodness aye endureth,
  Deep his wisdom, passing thought:
Splendour, light and life attend him,
  Beauty springeth out of naught.
    From his store
  Newborn worlds rise and adore.

Daily doth th’Almighty Giver
  Bounteous gifts on us bestow;
His desire our soul delighteth,
  Pleasure leads us where we go.
    Love doth stand
    At his hand;
  Joy doth wait on his command.

Still from man to God eternal
  Sacrifice of praise be done,
High above all praises praising
  For the gift of Christ his Son.
    Christ doth call
    One and all:
  Ye who follow shall not fall.

“Beauty springeth out of naught.”

Although Bridges studied medicine and worked briefly as a doctor, he retired to the country at the tender age of 38 and lived more or less for the rest of his life in what one observer has called a “prolific period of domestic seclusion.” Gentlemen can do that. He became Poet Laureate under King George V in 1913, an honour that could be seen as a misfortune for Bridges, as he was expected to write nationalistic verse during the war that ran counter to his aesthetic, his own sense of English values, and his growing awareness of what was actually going on at the Western Front. Complaints were raised in Parliament that he wasn’t doing enough for the war effort, something we must set beside his instruction to omit many of his war poems in subsequent reprints.

But it is during the War, clearly, that Bridges determines to publish Hopkins and it is his editorial work on the poems that occurs during this time.

As I have said, both poets were committed to English language. Hopkins revived certain kinds of English poetic construction and diction as part of a project of Englishness. Bridges also invented new ways of doing old things. ‘The Testament of Beauty’ is written using spelling reforms that rival Melville Dewey’s.  He also founded the Society for Pure English, to promote “a sounder ideal of the purity of our language.” Students of Anglo-Catholicism will note that the Society’s project was spelt out in an ongoing series of numbered Tracts, an unavoidable echo of the Tracts for the Times, leaving us to ponder with what evangelical fervour our two poets pursued their beliefs about English.

Could Hopkins have imagined that his friend Bridges would initiate such a crusade at the same time when he was preparing the poems for publication? Hopkins wrote in 1882, "It makes one weep to think what English might have been; for in spite of all that Shakespeare and Milton have done [...] no beauty in a language can make up for want of purity". Linguistic purism in English, the idea that words of English origin should take precedence over foreign imports, runs counter to the modern paradigm of English as adaptable to all forms of word borrowing, a paradigm established (if anyone can be given this credit) by Samuel Johnson in his prefaces to his Dictionary and it indeed gets “curiouser and curiouser” that two Oxford men who took great interest in that book’s famous successor, the Oxford English Dictionary, and who were steeped in Greek and Latin, in fact argued against the hybrid nature of English itself in poetry.

Today we ponder how the 700-plus pages of Robert Bridges Oxford Standard Authors is read by a small band of enthusiasts while the 70-odd pages of Hopkins’ collected poetry are read and known wherever English poetry shows up. Without Bridges certainly we none of us would have encountered Hopkins, yet it is one of the quirks of literary history that the Poet Laureate is now thought obscure, while the Jesuit who died in obscurity, his work unknown, is one of the household names of English Literature.    


Auden, W. H. A certain world : a commonplace book. Faber and Faber, 1971

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected with an introduction and notes by W.H. Gardner. Penguin, 1953

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Selected letters, edited by Catherine Phillips. Oxford University Press, 1990

The new English hymnal. Full music edition. Canterbury Press Norwich, 1986



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