Literature Personal

Today is the Birthday of One of My Favorite Poets

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Happy birthday, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

When I was a student at Wellesley College, I would sometimes take solitary walks around Lake Waban and think deep thoughts. As I walked, trampling the leaves, I would often recite out loud Gerard Manley Hopkins’ beautiful poem, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child.”

This description of Hopkins appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.” Today is a big day, because it is also the birthday of Beatrix Potter (“The Tale of Peter Rabbit”), Jacqueline Kennedy, Karl Popper, and Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware.

Today is the birthday of English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844) (books by this author), born in Stratford, Essex. He won a poetry prize in grammar school and then received a grant to study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied Classics and continued to write poetry. His academic record was outstanding, earning him the approbation of one of his masters, who called him “the star of Balliol.”

While he was at Oxford, Hopkins (who had been raised in the Anglican Church) converted to Roman Catholicism. His experience was so profound that he decided to become a Jesuit priest in 1868, and he burned all his poetry, feeling it was not befitting his profession as a clergyman. He did continue to keep a journal, however, and in 1875, he returned to poetry. He was living in Wales, and found its landscape and its language inspirational. When five Franciscan nuns died in a shipwreck, he was moved to write a long poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland.

Once he was ordained in 1877, he worked as a parish priest in the slums of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. He lived in Dublin from 1884 until his death of typhoid fever in 1889. Overworked, exhausted, and unwell, he wasn’t happy there, and his poetry reflects his unhappiness. Called the “terrible sonnets,” they show the poet’s struggles with spiritual and artistic matters.

Most of his poetry wasn’t published in his lifetime, and it was so innovative that most people who did get to read it didn’t understand it. As he wrote in a letter to Burns, “No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness …” But it influenced such 20th-century poets as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Charles Wright.

Here is one of my favorite poems, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child”:

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

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