The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

British Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), English poet and Jesuit priest, is widely recognized as one of the finest poets of the English speaking world. He is also one of my favorite Christian poets and a book of his poetry is one of the 25 books that every Christian should read. I purchased my copy of The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the exact edition as evidenced below, in 1976, while studying English poetry during my 2nd year of University, a year I spent in England on a study abroad program. I fell in love with the poetry of Hopkins and have turned again and again to his poetry for inspiration, hope, and encouragement.

Hopkins was born in 1844 in Stratford, England, same birthplace town of William Shakespeare 280 years earlier in 1564. Hopkins studied at Oxford where he became a follower of Jesus Christ, joined the Catholic church, and became a Jesuit priest. Early in his life as a priest, he burned all his poems and stopped writing poetry, fearing that his poems were a hindrance to his growing faith. Later, he began once again to write poetry as prayers and expressions of his faith in Christ, often featuring Christ at the heart of his poetry such as in his famous poem, The Windhover, a sonnet dedicated to Christ our Lord:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Hopkin’s poetry can be difficult to read, as he invented new rhythms into the inner lines of his poetry, what he termed sprung rhythm, in which the emphasis of syllables force a reader to be sprung out of a normal poetic rhythm, nudged by the words to hear and see anew. He also believed in a what he called inscape, the inner, spiritual landscape of life, of nature, what may only be perceived by faith, hope and love. He believed poetry was one of God’s finest ways of leading people into this inscape . One of his sonnets that best expresses this feature, is titled As Kingfishers catch fire. Here are the last six lines of that sonnet:

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.

Hopkins often wrote poetry reflecting upon aspects of God’s creation, such as his beloved poem, God’s Grandeur, as found in the quote above at the opening of this blog post. In this sonnet, Hopkins he reflects upon God’s glorious presence radiating through every aspect of nature. Though humans often trample upon and ruin God’s creation, God has infused all creation with a grandeur and resilience that even overcomes humanity’s destruction, as evidenced by the final six lines of Hopkin’s sonnet.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

With such hopefulness and care for stewarding God’s grandeur in nature, Hopkins became a favorite of nature lovers, environmentalists, and Christians committed to a faithful stewardship of creation. Hopkins often revels in the wonder of nature in his poetry, such as in his sweet celebration of creation in a poem titled Pied Beauty:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
       With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                     Praise Him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered all his life with a melancholic spirit, what some today may consider bi-polar disorder. In 1884, when he was 40, he became a professor of Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, Ireland. His final four years of life were extremely difficult years, marked by depression, loneliness, a heavy work load, and ill health. He died of typhoid fever in 1889, at the young age of 44, with his final words a surprising blessing, “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” His body is buried in Dublin, Ireland.

On December 8, 1975, 86 years after Hopkins death, a memorial stone for Gerard Manley Hopkins, was placed in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, England, honoring him as one of England’s finest poets with a Latin inscription, “To the greater glory of God.” This stone calls Hopkins an “Immortal Diamond.” Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, has become a place of pilgrimage for lovers of literature and poetry. More than 100 poets and writers are buried or have memorials here.

I close this blog post with Hopkins’ poem Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush         
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush         
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.         

What is all this juice and all this joy?         
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,         
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,         
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,         
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

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