[Published: August 27, 1989] It is just 100 years since the death of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., and about 60 years since I first read him. Those were the days when to read ”Ulysses” was to break the law. Modernism was dangerous, and one of the marks of modernism was strangeness of language. Hopkins, like James Joyce, had bizarre compound words like ”beadbonny” and ”fallowboot-fellow”; he seemed to be dragging the Germanic roots of English out of freshly dug earth. Yet how could a Jesuit priest, who died in the same year as Robert Browning, be a modernist? By an accident, the fact of his not being published until 1918, he was forced into joining that tide of literary innovation on which T. S. Eliot rode, also Ezra Pound, above all James Joyce. The poet Robert Bridges, the closest friend of Hopkins, had done wrong, I still think, in delaying the publication of Hopkins’s small poetic oeuvre until the end of World War I. Young poets died in that war, and they would have been glad to take that thin volume of Hopkins into the trenches. But the world, according to the highly conservative, not to say timid, Bridges, was not ready for the Hopkinsian hand grenade, and it is true that the 1918 edition of his work was slow to sell out.
I read the second impression of 1930. I read it on the Channel packet coming back from France, a schoolboy tremulous at having stuffed the Odyssey Press edition of ”Ulysses” (two paperback volumes) into his waistband. I still cannot read Hopkins without the sensation of daring proper, at that time, to reading ”Ulysses.”
Another reminder that we’ll be celebrating the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins on Thursday, June 23. Post your favourite Hopkins’ poem for reading and discussion on the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.