Friday, June 8, 2012

June 8 - Gerard Manley Hopkins, Priest, Jesuit, Poet


Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet and so he wrote poetry. It was a natural thing. Not only did he produce beautiful art in words and thoughts but it was, by itself, beautiful in the way he did it. At its very essence, Gerard's art produced art. But he struggled mightily with a variety of sins and compulsions. To add to his pain, he suffered under long bouts of depression and anxiety that often left him feeling hopeless. This depression and dismay led him to write poetry while at the same time despising the product of his pen--such is the nature of most foul depression. He resolved to become a Jesuit and a priest and in this resolution he took his poetry and burned it as an act of sacrifice and renunciation. Apparently, Gerard had decided that the mind of a poet could not be or become the mind of a priest. Though many have insisted he was wrong to think so, perhaps he was right at the time. Perhaps Gerard-who-was had to lay down a part of himself to find Gerard-who-could-be. So, his aims changed but poetry still beat within his heart and his words ("I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day") even now give expression to that dark predator that haunted his waking hours:


I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see 
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.
Gerard was an excellent student but the first time he took his final theology exam he failed for some unknown reason. Perhaps the darkness was all too thick around him on the day he sat for the exam. He could still be ordained--and he was--but his chance of progressing into leadership within the order was severely limited by this one failure. He served his Lord and the Jesuits to the best of his ability but his heart still beat poetically and it was in 1875 that he was finally able to give himself permission to write what his heart and mind already recited inwardly. He was asked to write a poem in memory of the wreck of a ship called the Deutschland that counted five Franciscan nuns among its 157 dead. The idea that poetry could be a type of theology was liberating to Gerard and he began writing again but not publishing his work partly because he desired to avoid material gain, partly because he feared a kind of artistic liberty that would distract him from his devotion to God, and partly because his depression made him doubt its value. He died in 1889 not having published any of his poetry--all of it was published after his death by those with an eye for the theology and power of poetry. On his deathbed, he found release and joy. He was heard to exclaim, "I am so happy, I am so happy." In death, he found release from the predator and comfort in the embrace of his God.

"Thee, God, I come from, to thee go"

THEE, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.

What I know of thee I bless,
As acknowledging thy stress
On my being and as seeing
Something of thy holiness.

Once I turned from thee and hid,
Bound on what thou hadst forbid;
Sow the wind I would; I sinned:
I repent of what I did.

Bad I am, but yet thy child.
Father, be thou reconciled.
Spare thou me, since I see
With thy might that thou art mild.

I have life before me still
And thy purpose to fulfil;
Yea a debt to pay thee yet:
Help me, sir, and so I will.

But thou bidst, and just thou art,
Me shew mercy from my heart
Towards my brother, every other
Man my mate and counterpart.

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