Priest and Poet – Gerard Manly Hopkins and the Isle of Wight

By Edmund Matyjaszek

Of all the Victorian writers and poets associated with the Isle of Wight – the poet Tennyson at the head of course, for his eminence as Poet Laureate and his long residence on the island, and the novelist Dickens who wrote part of David Copperfield at Bonchurch – the story of Gerard Manley Hopkins is perhaps the most unusual as the first edition of his poems did not appear until 1918, nearly 30 years after his death in 1889 at the young age of 45.

His association with the island is an early one though, and a crucial one. While at Oxford, in 1863, he spent 2 months at Shanklin in the summer vacation and wrote enthusiastically about the island:

“The sea is brilliantly coloured and always calm, bathing delightful, horses and boats to be obtained, walks wild and beautiful, sketches charming, walking tours and excursions, poetic downs, the lovely chine, fine cliffs….”

Scenes not unfamiliar today.


But it was his second long visit in the summer of 1866 that gives the island prominence in his biography. This was a vital period in the development of Catholicism in England as John Henry Newman had published his “Apologia pro Vita Sua” in 1864, was himself resident at St Mary’s Ryde in 1865, and said Mass and preached from the pulpit still in use today, and was writing The Dream of Gerontius that Elgar, another Victorian Catholic, famously set to music. Hopkins on holiday again with his family at Shanklin, being pressed by the questioning of one of his brothers, admitted his conversion to the Catholic faith. This was still a momentous and often contentious step for any person to take at that time. In October, 1866, it was Newman himself who admitted Hopkins into the Catholic Church.

One wonders if they discussed their various experiences of the Isle of Wight! Its prominence as the summer “court” of Queen Victoria had of course made it by now a very fashionable place to visit.

The poems of this period and the years afterwards – after his conversion in 1866 he entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, in 1868, and was ordained priest in 1877 at the age of 33 – reflect a great joy. A typical and well-known one is Pied Beauty:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

But his own life did not proceed so happily, and this is what makes his story rather different. His superiors could not really understand his poetry; the Jesuit journal The Month would not print his poems; and later duties as a priest and missioner in the industrial northern cities, and endless academic duties in the last 7 years of his life, first at the Jesuit public school Stonyhurst and then at University College Dublin, could well have sapped his strength. By 1885, marooned in Ireland, and at odds with its nationalist feeling, he was writing very different poems:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! What sighs you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay….
I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me…..

It is possible that his dual vocation as a priest and as a poet – not unusual in English Literature as the lives of George Herbert and Robert Southwell may attest – gave rise to conflicts that were hard for him to reconcile, especially as he remained unpublished in his lifetime. It is interesting that when he was published in 1918, through the efforts of his fellow-poet Robert Bridges, his work struck a very contemporary note, having a notable influence on poets as recent as Ted Hughes, the late Poet Laureate, who wrote:-

“Both the fresh and vital impact of his language, and the depth of feeling expressed through it, both of celebration and anguish, continue to draw readers and scholars, and he is now considered by many as second only to Tennyson in the Victorian period”.

It is curious that both have such strong associations with the Isle of Wight.