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Manley Hopkins, Gerald

Category: Poet

Gerald Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889), was an English poet, homosexual, Roman Catholic convert, and Jesuit priest, whose "20th-century fame established him posthumously among the leading Victorian poets. His experimental explorations in prosody (especially sprung rhythm) and his use of imagery established him as a daring innovator in a period of largely traditional verse."

 Manley Hopkins was both an extremely intelligent man - he went Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied classics – but also an unusually sensitive man.

He was obsessed with ‘sin’ and began recording his ‘sins’ in his diary. In particular, he found it hard to accept his sexuality; hence, he began to exercise strict self-control in regard to it.  But his homosexuality was brought home to him by his meeting with fellow Etonian Digby Mackworth Dolben, who was nearly four years his junior.  His private journal for confessions the following year proves how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts of him.  Another indication of the nature of his feelings for Dolben is that Hopkins's High Anglican confessor seems to have forbidden him to have any contact with Dolben except by letter. Their relationship was abruptly ended by Dolben's drowning in June 1867, an event whose impact one can well imagine.  So not only do we have angst but grief.

 "Ironically, fate may have bestowed more through Dolben’s death than it could ever have bestowed through longer life ... [for] many of Hopkins’s best poems — impregnated with an elegiac longing for Dolben, his lost belovèd and his muse — were the result."

In 1866,  Hopkins converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. After his graduation in 1867, Hopkins was provided a teaching post, but the following year he decided to enter the priesthood.  His decision to become a Jesuit, led him to burn much of his early poetry as he felt it incompatible with his vocation. Most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death.

Hopkins failed his final theology exam and turned again to teaching, but his small stature (5'2"), unprepossessing nature and his homosexual leanings meant that teaching was not easy for him.  He was isolated and lonely.  His poems of the time came to be known as the "terrible sonnets," not because of their quality, but because they crystallized the melancholy dejection which plagued the latter part of his life.

He would probably be diagnosed these days as a depressive, but what comes through in his poems is a deep spirituality.  What is also very apparent is the terrible conflict caused by his homosexuality – angst and terrible angst.  After suffering ill health for several years, Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889 [aged 45]. 

His last words were "I am so happy, I am so happy.

Going home.


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