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This famous British poet gave up the thing dearest to him for Lent


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John Burger - published on 03/18/19

Gerard Manley Hopkins put writing aside for the penitential season of 1866.

Giving up something for Lent? The more you love something, the greater the sacrifice. For some, it might be almost impossible to go without a daily cup of coffee.

For Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English Jesuit priest, his great sacrifice one year was the thing by which he would one day come to be known: poetry.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Hopkins’ Christian devotion was evident from an early age. Born into a devout High Church Anglican family, he read from the New Testament daily at school. He seems to have been attracted to asceticism from childhood. He once tried going without liquids for a week and nearly succeeded until his tongue turned black and he collapsed. Another time, he abstained from salt for a week.

His father, Manley Hopkins, was a devout High Church Anglican who taught Sunday School at St. John’s in Hampstead. He coauthored a book, Pietas Metrica Or, Nature Suggestive of God and Godliness, with a brother who was a priest. The curate’s wife maintained close contacts with the High Church Tractarian movement, which deeply affected Hopkins at Oxford.

In the 1860s, Gerard Manley Hopkins and his brother Arthur had a kind of friendly competition as budding artists. It seemed, though, after a while that Gerard was being drawn more and more to word-painting, i.e., poetry. One of Hopkins’s teachers, Richard Watson Dixon, later became a priest and proved to be an “important model for Hopkins of the possibility of combining poetic and religious vocations,” the Poetry Foundation noted.

At Oxford, though, things changed for Hopkins, whose “religious consciousness increased dramatically,” said the Foundation:

From April of 1863, when he first arrived with some of his journals, drawings, and early Keatsian poems in hand, until June of 1867 when he graduated, Hopkins felt the charm of Oxford, “steeped in sentiment as she lies,” as Matthew Arnold had said, “spreading her gardens to the moonlight and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.” Here he became more fully aware of the religious implications of the medievalism of Ruskin, Dixon, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Inspired also by Christina Rossetti, the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist, and by the Victorian preoccupation with the fifteenth-century Italian religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, he soon embraced Ruskin’s definition of “Medievalism” as a “confession of Christ” opposed to both “Classicalism” (“Pagan Faith”) and “Modernism” (the “denial of Christ”).

He met Rossetti, a poet in her own right but also, according to the Poetry Foundation, “the model for the Virgin in the paintings of her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” She influenced Hopkins “more than any other contemporary at this point in his career and was particularly important in Hopkins’ replacement of Keats with Dante as the dominant paradigm in his poetic imagination. Christina Rossetti became for Hopkins the embodiment of the medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Oxford Movement, and Victorian religious poetry generally.” When he read her poem “The Convent Threshold,” he was already considering religious life.

Both Hopkins and Christina Rossetti believed that religion was more important than art. The outline of Hopkins’s career follows that of Christina Rossetti’s: an outwardly drab, plodding life of submission quietly bursting into splendor in holiness and poetry. Both felt that religious inspiration was more important than artistic inspiration. Whenever religious renunciation and self-expression were felt to be at odds, as they often were, self-expression had to be sacrificed. Poetry had to be subordinated to religion.

The aforementioned Savonarola also loomed large in Hopkins’ imagination. He was known for burning “profane art” in Renaissance Italy, and Hopkins considered him “the prophet of Christian art.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that after Hopkins became a Catholic in 1866 and resolved the following year to enter religious life, he burned most of the poems he had written in his youth. He had already put poetry aside temporarily, when he gave it up during the Lenten season of 1866.

It’s interesting to consider, though, the poems that he did not burn. One, “Barnfloor and Winepress” from 1865, shows clearly that even before he became a Catholic Hopkins was deeply attracted to the idea that in the Mass, the bread and wine consecrated by the priest become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Here is the text of “Barnfloor and Winepress,” in which wheat and wine sing the glory of the Eucharist:

THOU who on Sin’s wages starvest, Behold we have the Joy of Harvest: For us was gathered the First-fruits, For us was lifted from the roots, Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore, Scourged upon the threshing-floor, Where the upper millstone roofed His Head, At morn we found the Heavenly Bread; And on a thousand altars laid, Christ our Sacrifice is made. Thou, whose dry plot for moisture gapes, We shout with them that tread the grapes; For us the Vine was fenced with thorn, Five ways the precious branches torn. Terrible fruit was on the tree In the acre of Gethsemane: For us by Calvary’s distress The Wine was rackèd from the press; Now, in our altar-vessels stored, Lo, the sweet Vintage of the Lord! In Joseph’s garden they threw by The riven Vine, leafless, lifeless, dry: On Easter morn the Tree was forth, In forty days reached Heaven from earth,— Soon the whole world is overspread: Ye weary, come into the shade. The field where He hath planted us Shall shake her fruit as Libanus, When He hath sheaved us in His sheaf, When He has made us bear His leaf. We scarcely call that banquet food, But even our Saviour’s and our blood, We are so grafted on His wood.

It’s entirely possible that meditating on the Passion themes of this poem, tied so strongly to the Eucharist, could have carried young Gerard Manley Hopkins through a season of fasting, not only from food but from writing poems as well.

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