This Advent, Ignatian writers from across the Jesuit Conference are sharing 25 days of reflections on Ignatian heroes. You can receive these reflections directly in your inbox by signing up here.
Day 15: Gerard Manley Hopkins
By Mary Grace Mangano
I first encountered the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins in college, when a fellow member of the newspaper staff gifted me a copy for our Christmas exchange. In grad school, I heard “Pied Beauty” and “As kingfishers catch fire,” and I went searching for that old copy of his collected works from college, in awe of his unique use of language. In my years of teaching English in high school, I found a kindred spirit in Hopkins when I learned he started to go blind from grading papers. Since then, I’ve found spiritual solace and inspiration in his poetry of praise – a poetry that is at once mysterious, lovely, familiar and strange, much like the God that Hopkins tried to glorify with his pen.
Born in 1844 in England, Hopkins was raised in a devout Anglican family, from whom he became estranged when he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest. His conversion was in part prompted by reading John Henry Newman’s “Apologia pro via sua,” and he was received into the church by Newman himself. Hopkins entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1867, was ordained in 1877, and for seven years taught and preached in London, Oxford, Liverpool, Glasgow and Stonyhurst. He had burned all his poems upon becoming a priest and vowed never to write again, until his Jesuit superior asked him to write about a group of German nuns who had died on a ship on their way to England. From this followed what is now one of his most well-known poems, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” In 1884, he became a professor at the Royal University College in Dublin, although he died five years later from typhoid fever. He had strongly disliked Ireland and longed to return home to England, but he never would.
During his lifetime, Hopkins’ poetry was never published. He sent his poems to his friend Robert Bridges, who often did not understand Hopkins’ experimental and inventive style, but published his friend’s poems after his death. Hopkins’ poetry represents a fusion of British Romanticism with the ancient Catholic tradition. Some of his poems are fragmentary, incomplete, in Latin or in Welsh. Many of the ones that are popular today showcase the “sprung rhythm” which he created. These poems are the fruit of Hopkins’ time in prayer performing the Spiritual Exercises, meditating on God’s gifts, especially in nature, and on hell. He observed that all of nature can offer praise and glory to God, but only man can know that he does this and can speak it and choose to do it. Human beings are created to praise, he concluded, and therefore, he writes a poetry of praise, such as the poem “God’s Grandeur.”
Hopkins uses all five senses in his poetry, as in the Ignatian contemplative tradition. For me, it was when I heard Hopkins’ poetry read aloud in grad school that I was able to grasp – even without necessarily intellectually understanding what he was doing – that it was a poetry of praise, of glorying in God’s creation.
Reflection: As we joyfully await the coming of the child Jesus this Advent, who ushers light into darkness, how can you use your senses to see, hear, touch, taste and smell God’s gifts, freely given to us? In return, how can you offer your own praise as your gift to him this Christmas?
Mary Grace Mangano is a writer and high school English teacher currently living in Philadelphia. She received her BA in English from Villanova University and then continued her education at the University of Notre Dame where she earned a master’s of science in management and a master’s in education through the Alliance for Catholic Education. Mary Grace is currently working on her MFA in creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston as an inaugural Gioia Family Fellowship recipient. Her writing has been published in America magazine, Dappled Things, Fare Forward and others. You can find more of her work at marygracemangano.wordpress.com.