New Testament in Hopkins Poetry
Patrick Samway SJ


The New Testament in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Patrick Samway, S.J. St. Joseph's Philadelphia (Hopkins Festival 2009)

In the poetry he wrote while studying theology at St. Beuno’s and just after his ordination, Gerard Manley Hopkins incorporated Scripture into his poetry, particularly New Testament citations.

When Gerard Manley Hopkins finished his two-year Jesuit novitiate in 1870, he began a traditional course of studies, first at St. Mary’s Hall in Stonyhurst, Lancashire, where he focused on logic, philosophy, psychology, mathematics, and ethics, and then subsequently, beginning in the later part of 1874, at St. Bueno’s College, near St. Asaph in Wales, where he undertook a concentrated three-year program of theology taught primarily in Latin, including courses on dogmatic and moral theology, canon law, church history, Hebrew, Sacred Scripture, plus others he termed “and what not.” During these years of study, Hopkins heard with great regularity passages from Scripture read during the liturgies in which he participated and in the refectory at the beginning of most meals.

Alfred Thomas, S.J
., who has tracked with enormous precision Hopkins’ years of training as a Jesuit, lists these daily refectory Scripture readings Hopkins heard, plus the spiritual biographies and writing of the saints. Unfortunately, there are no such lists for the years Hopkins studied theology, though undoubtedly such readings occurred. In short, as a Jesuit scholastic Hopkins daily had an opportunity to listen to and appreciate the significance of God’s words contained in Holy Writ.

Moreover, Hopkins’ theological studies at St. Beuno’s provided him with an opportunity to focus on Scripture, since courses on church history and dogma, in particular, would reference specific—and sometimes controversial—biblical texts.

Emilio Perini, S.J
. (1835-93), an Italian who served as a theologian to Cardinal Giuseppe Berardi at Vatican Council I, taught Scripture and Hebrew at St. Beuno’s for 13 years, including the three years that Hopkins was a student there, though Thomas does not indicate whether or not Father Perini had special training as a Scripture scholar. In hindsight, it seems clear that Hopkins and his fellow Jesuits did not have the benefit of a developed scriptural hermeneutics, since Pope Leo XIII, in his apostolic letter Vigilanitae, established the Pontifical Biblical Commission to promote biblical studies in the Catholic Church 25 years after Hopkins had finished his theology.

Nevertheless, the first word of this apostolic letter, “vigilance,” sounded a careful warning that Hopkins would have understood; Scripture scholars needed to safeguard the authority of the Bible from the exaggerated criticism posed by a developing and highly suspicious Modernism. Over the years as the Vatican responded to specific scriptural issues, such as the date and composition of the Pastoral Letters or the concept of parousia in the writings of St. Paul, it sent throughout the Catholic world a dark cloud of reactionary conservatism, with the inevitable result that only trained and approved Catholic scholars, not the laity, could interpret biblical texts.

The Catholic hierarchy were well aware that some of their Protestant counterparts favored an historical-critical exegesis that embraced rather consciously a distinctly anti-dogmatic bias. Like many converts, Hopkins embraced his new faith wholeheartedly—though not without periods of despair and doubt—and had no intention, certainly as a poet, of engaging in polemics. That dimension of his scriptural training would not well serve his poetic imagination.

Still and all, it might be presumed that during his years at St. Beuno’s, Hopkins incorporated Scripture into his poetry, particularly New Testament citations, since these were the years, until his ordination on September 23, 1877, and for a short time afterward, when he formally studied Scripture and then felt its lingering, concerted influence. And these were the years, too, in which he wrote 14 of his most significant poems, including “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Loss of the Eurydice.”

Yet, given the fact that Hopkins never explicitly refers by name in these poems to Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, the question remains: How did Hopkins refer to the New Testament in the poetry he wrote while studying theology at St. Beuno’s and in the period just after his ordination?

While individual words in some of these poems, such as “gall” in “The Windhover” and “crown” in “The Sea and the Skylark,” correspond and resonate with words found in Scripture (Mt. 27:34, Acts 8:23; Mt. 27:29, Mk. 15:17), one cannot really call these scriptural citations as such; they function more as theological echoes in Hopkins’ poetic texts. On the other hand, it is possible to acknowledge larger (and valid) scriptural motifs and themes, but without specific textual references, they merely form part of an aperceptive background to Hopkins’ poetry. David Anthony Downes, citing the work of Alison G. Sulloway in Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Temperament, notes, for example, that “The Wreck of the Deutschland”“draws its matter and form directly from the Apocalypse.”

He further suggests that poems such as “God’s Grandeur,” “Spring,” “Hurrahing in Harvest,” and “The Caged Skylark,” (all written while Hopkins studied theology at St. Beuno’s), also reveal what he calls Hopkins’ “personal apocalypse” (p. 93). For me, Downes argument is too amorphous and atextual. I seek more the pull and tug between the language and imagery of Scripture and their counterparts in Hopkins’ poetry, which all-too-often celebrates various aspects of salvation history.

Aware that once he entered the Jesuit Order, he most likely would not keep books he had previously owned, Hopkins once wrote to Canon R.W. Dixon that he “copied out St. Paul, St. John…” in order to have close by texts he cherished as he grew more and more into his life as a Jesuit. His “dominical sermons," which he delivered periodically while at St. Beuno’s, are indisputable evidence of Hopkins’ concern to share with his fellow Jeuits the Good News in a textually appropriate manner. The subject matter of his sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, for example, delivered on March 11, 1877, is taken from the Gospel According to St. John, 6:10, in which Jesus exhorts his 5,000 followers to sit down before they eat the bread he will distribute to them. Following the counsel of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Hopkins depicts here a composition of place, with clever references to the countryside of Wales, so that his approximately 70 auditors can see what he is describing and hear the supposed words of those assembled on the hillside. In this case, however, Hopkins’ enthusiastic exhortation seemed to have the opposite effect; some in the audience laughed at this relocation of this Gospel pericope.

Still and all, Hopkins well knew the value of the visual imagination, as he stated in a paper entitled “On the Composition of Place in the Spiritual Exercises” that he delivered on April 28, 1877 to a small group of scholastics and faculty. The composition of place, he maintained, must be real, not invented, and that its purpose is help the exercitant become “present in spirit at the scenes, persons, etc. so that they may really act on him and he on them.” Drawn to Hopkins’s sermons, David Anthony Downes cites the one delivered at St. Francis Xavier Church in Liverpool on April 25, 1881 as a “brilliant example of [Hopkins’] exegetical ability. In all, Hopkins referred in his sermons, if my counting is accurate, 17 times to the Gospel According to St. Matthew, 13 times to Luke, 25 times to Mark, 14 times to John, and 14 times to the writings of St. Paul.

Thus, who would doubt that Hopkins felt comfortable citing and interpreting in his sermons precise texts from the New Testament? In light of this, I maintain that the key for seeing the influence of the New Testament on Hopkins’ poetry lies not in individual scriptural words or phrases, but in certain biblical episodes or stories, two of which are most telling.

First, in the Synoptic account of Jesus calming the winds and the sea, his disciples began to shout as the boat took on water: “Lord, save us. We are perishing!”(Mt. 8: 25). Jesus questioned why his disciples were afraid. Was it due to a lack of faith in him? Operative here is the Near-Eastern myth that the sea, as seen in the Gilgamesh Epic and the story of Noah and the Flood, represented chaos, but which, nevertheless, a compassionate God controls. And after witnessing his power to dominate unruly winds and water, Jesus’ disciples could not help but wonder, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt. 8:27). Jesus, it should be stressed, does what God does, as found in certain passages of the Hebrew Bible (see Psalms 74 and 89). He saves his people. Although the Synoptic writers present this episode from a post-resurrectional perspective, they place their hope and trust in the pre-resurrectional Jesus, who here and always rescues all God’s people from death.

Second, this story takes on a more personal character in Chapter 27 of the Acts of the Apostles, which both recounts the most famous New Testament shipwreck and its happy result; Paul reaching Rome, the world’s capital, despite incredible odds. A divine plan directs Paul’s journey in spite of a contrary sea and apparently uncontrollable elements, similar to those experienced by Iñigo of Loyola when the battered ship he was in, as he sailed from the Holy Land to Italy in December 1523, sought refuge on Crete to prevent total destruction.

Stories of shipwrecks abound in Greco-Roman literature, such as those depicted in the classic tales of Odysseus and Aeneas. In mentioning various cities and islands—Adramyttium, Sidon, Myra in Lycia, Salmone, Lasea—Paul remains true to the shipwrecked genre. When Paul’s ship nears the island of Cauda, not far from Crete, it faces a dire emergency. Tackle and cargo are jettisoned; stars prove useless as navigational aids; all the passengers face imminent death. Paul, speaking prophetically, ranges from reproach to reassurance: “Men, you should have listened to me, and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only for the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told” (27:21-25). Paul appears as the instrument of God in “saving” his shipmates, reinforced by the taking of some bread, thus linking the Eucharist to salvation. “[Paul after] he said this, [he] took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat” (27: 35).

The others likewise partake of the saving nourishment. Eventually Paul and his companions reach Malta and then Rome, where Paul lived and preached for two years. His personal fate is secondary to the ongoing triumph of the Gospel, now preached to the Gentiles with all boldness and without hindrance.
In “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” in which Hopkins makes reference to Paul (Stanza 10) Hopkins’ theological genius shows forth, particularly in the first 11 stanzas of the poem, not in repeating the theological tenets of these two scriptural passages, but in presenting a more nuanced—and, for me, more informed—theological perspective on the drowning of the five Franciscan nuns, and over 50 others, as the ship they were in foundered on the Kentish Knock, a seven-mile treacherous bank at the mouth of the Thames River—a 30-hour ordeal before help finally arrived.

In recounting this shipwreck, Hopkins dramatizes this event in the totality of the existential and theological moment. He went beyond whatever facts he read in newspaper accounts. By not blaming the captain and his crew, Hopkins locates the center of his poem: a violent, thrashing struggle. “Hopkins,” notes Norman MacKenzie, “explores instead the interplay between the three parties in this tragic drama—the omnipotent but self-limiting God, the powerful but subordinate elements of Nature, and finally the heterogeneous representatives of mankind, varying from the courageous to the terror-stricken. The Sisters figure in the poem in various crucial roles: symbols of God’s servants rejected by dogged rebellious Man, and yet simultaneously symbols of mankind purged and ennobled by God. Unlike the scriptural stories—and this is an important difference—God is both creator of the violent winds, master of the tide, and lord of all who breathe. Yet human beings, as enfleshed creatures, are susceptible to death even when their souls are open to eternal life. The nuns, together with the crew and their fellow passengers, exist in a world totally of God’s creation. They bathe “in [Christ’s] fall-gold mercies” (Stanza 23). And if the waters of the North Sea can be seen as a baptismal font, all those who receive baptism enter in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, not into one or other aspect of his life, but into the totality of his divine existence. We can come into contact with God’s grace even when the forces of nature loom against us.

Just as one image in Scripture rarely suffices (recall that Jesus is called the Way, the Truth, the Bread of Life, the Cornerstone, and the Son of Man), so too Hopkins transforms the Deutschland into “an ark / For the listener” (Stanza 33), bringing God’s people into a new land, where he establishes a holy covenant with them, symbolized in the rainbow that stretches from one end of the earth to the other. In this poem, God is present to those created in his image and likeness, providing them with ongoing moments of metanoia, especially during the most difficult moments of our lives. “Our king back, Oh, upon English sóuls! / Let him éaster in us, be a dáyspring to the dimness of us, / be a crímson-cresseted east” (Stanza 35). God has allowed the treacherous gale to exist, but he has not willed it as a form of punishment. “Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung: / Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then” (Stanza 9). At any moment in our lives, all of us can face radical danger. At the same time, we are given sufficient grace to place ourselves before God and asked to be received into his presence for all eternity.

For critics today, “The Loss of the Eurydice” remains in the shadows of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” perhaps because of the extensive narrative character of the poem and its concluding sense of gloom and disappointment. Though Robert Bridges preferred “The Loss of the Eurydice” to its predecessor, I suspect he is in the minority, for three reasons:

1. The Eurydice abruptly disappears from sight in the first two stanzas of the poem on that deceptive bright blue March day in 1878. Given this, the human drama of the drowning sailors lacks a thematic prologue and dramatic center. Only two of the more than 300 officers and seamen survived: 19 year-old Sydney Fletcher, who is mentioned by name, and Benjamin Cuddiford.

2. Though Captain Marcus Hare, also mentioned by name in the poem, came under severe criticism for his apparent lack of control of the situation, especially for not furling his sails as the barometer dropped, he was eventually cleared of all blame. At the court-martial trial, Cuddiford reported that Captain Hare had said “It is of no avail.” Hopkins’ focus remains not on Hare, but on England’s lack of religious preparation of its “un- / Warned” youth (ll. 3-4) and “in / Uchrist” youth (l. 95) to face the moments of their deaths. A seemingly pitiful waste of young human life.

3. No triumphant upsurge of spiritual strength emerges here, but an abiding sense that God did grant graces to the drowning men in their hour of need. But that was in the past and leaves unanswered the question of how he deals with us now, in the present. In concluding, Hopkins plumbs without clear resolution uncharted spiritual depths: “Not that hell knows redeeming, / But for souls sunk in seeming / Fresh, till doomfire burn all, / Prayer shall fetch pity eternal” (ll. 117-20).

In sum, Hopkins used scriptural texts most effectively as large backdrops to his two famous shipwreck poems. By foregrounding these poems against these biblical texts, he allowed the fullness of these texts to provide polyvalent commentary, freighted with centuries of sophisticated research into dogmatic theology, Semitic languages, Near-Eastern archeology and geography, and biblical hermeneutics. And, most importantly, he did it is such a marvelously subtle way that he never called attention to his technique.

Links to 2009 Hopkins Festival Lectures

New Testament and Hopkins Poetry || The Terrible Sonnets || Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manley Hopkins || The Kingfisher as Symbol in Hopkins Poetry