Christopher Hawtree

The great inscape

While obsessing over ‘evil thoughts’ and self-indulgence in his journals, Hopkins still glories in God’s grandeur and the pattern of creation

‘I am 12 miles from a lemon,’ lamented that bon vivant clergyman Sydney Smith on reaching one country posting. He was related to Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest who, in the popular imagination, would quite possibly balk at the offer of a lemon. After all, 30 years before Prufrock, Hopkins did not dare to eat a peach, fearful of its delicious savour when offered one by Robert Bridges in a Roehampton garden.

Hopkins was a complex man who delighted in simple things. Our sense of his view of the world has been complicated by the circumstances of his publication. Forbidden to publish his great ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, he largely squirrelled away, or burnt, his work. At his funeral in 1889, there was no body in the coffin, lest it spread typhoid; and, three decades on, when Bridges published a collection of his poems, it was almost as if a Harry Lime had sprung forth to find a ready place in a changing, Prufrock-driven literary landscape. It took a decade to sell 750 copies at 12/6, but Hopkins was amongst us.

One of the first to relish him was Virginia Woolf who, in a letter, wrote:

I liked them better than any poetry for ever so long; partly because they’re so difficult, but also because instead of writing mere rhythms and sense as most poets do, he makes a very strange jumble; so that what is apparently pure nonsense is at the same time very beautiful, and not nonsense at all.

Hopkins would be carried forth on the tide of Modernism (Mrs Woolf herself typeset key poems: Hope Mirrlees’s ‘Paris’ and Eliot’s The Waste Land). Muriel Spark’s 1963 novel of postwar life, The Girls of Slender Means, was suffused with ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, from elocution lessons to its very ending.

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