The deeply religious poetry of the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins was the focus of a conference where participants praised the nineteenth-century poet’s craftsmanship and environmentalism, saying he and Bl. John Henry Newman were “revolutionaries in their time.”
“His poetry is beautiful, and inspiring. It’s full of deep thought and observation of nature, and the presence of God in every living thing and even in inanimate objects,” said Richard Austin, an English-born actor presently living in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia.
Austin, one of the presenters at the international Gerard Manley Hopkins Conference, held at Regis University in Denver March 25-27, said the poet’s work is particularly important at a time when mankind appears to be becoming more devoted to a “cult of the self” and is distancing itself from an “ideal of connection” to God and spirituality.
Hopkins saw poetry as “speech purged of dross, like gold in the furnace,” he told CNA on March 26.
The poet’s 1877 work “God’s Grandeur” focuses on the beauty of creation. It begins:
“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.”
Regis University professor Victoria McCabe told CNA that the Hopkins Conference has had 16 meetings, including events at the Gregorian University in Rome, Oriel College in Oxford, the Milltown Park Jesuit Institute in Dublin and at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
The conference launched after three Catholics, “passionate readers” of Hopkins, envisioned a gathering of scholars, poets, students and parishioners to help widen interest in the poet and to serve the people of God.
Hopkins, who lived from 1844 to 1889, was born in England to Anglican parents. In 1866 he was received into the Catholic Church by another prominent convert, Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman. Hopkins joined the Society of Jesus the next year and was ordained to the priesthood in 1877.
He spent the last five years of his life teaching in Dublin at Newman’s Catholic University of Ireland, which served Irish Catholics who had been denied an education.
Conference speaker Fr. Peter Milward, S.J., a professor emeritus of English at Sophia University in Tokyo, said Newman and Hopkins both represent the “second spring” of Catholicism in England.
“Newman was great in the medium of prose, and then he’s followed by Hopkins in the medium of poetry. The two complement each other.”
Both men were “revolutionaries in terms of their time,” he said. While Newman proposed an “essentially Catholic spirit” in the Anglican Church, Hopkins created innovative poems filled with “deep spiritual inspiration.”
Fr. Milward cited the 1875 poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which commemorated a naval disaster that killed dozens of people, including five Franciscan nuns. This poem “looks through the outer appearance of disaster to the reality of some divine providence at work.”
Hopkins’ poetry is comparable to “the greatest language of William Shakespeare,” the priest said.
Regis student Alex Dohn, a junior studying marketing, told CNA he likes Hopkins because “he incorporates God in his poems through nature.”
Dohn echoed a common theme at the conference.
Fr. Joseph Feeney, S.J., a professor of English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said Hopkins was “an environmentalist poet.”
“He celebrated nature, he grieved for the destruction of nature, and he urged the preservation of nature.”
One of the poet’s “quite distinctive” perspectives includes the “interplay between the environment and himself.”
He was “fascinated with the very shapes of nature” and had “a sense of the ‘selfhood’ of a thing in nature.”
“People normally don’t transfer selfhood over to individual stones, or individual dragonflies,” Fr. Feeney explained.
Austin, who performed Hopkins’ poetry for the conference, emphasized the importance of listening to the poet’s works.
“You shouldn’t so much read him, as hear him,” he remarked.
When a performer of Hopkins has the right pacing, the poet’s imagery will carry along the listener “even though it’s a heightened form of language and it’s not the one that he or she would normally be used to listen to.”
Austin’s album “Back to Beauty’s Giver,” made in 2003, contains 27 of Hopkins’ poems. The work is “reckoned to be the most complete audiobook of Hopkins poetry,” he added, and “most people seem to feel that it’s the best.”