Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Industrial Revolution brought ecological disaster to the British Isles. As early as 1804, William Blake wrote grimly of “dark Satanic Mills” casting shadows over the rural landscapes. By 1884, John Ruskin noticed that even in midsummer, “the sky is covered with gray cloud; -not rain-cloud, but a dry black veil which no ray of sunshine can pierce…enough to make distant objects unintelligible…And it is a new thing to me, and a very dreadful one. I am sixty years old and more, and since I was five, have gleaned the best hours of my life in the sun of spring and summer mornings; and I never saw such [clouds] as those till now.” In these years, Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed his detective, Sherlock Holmes, tracking criminals through the London fogs called “pea-soupers.” Ruskin’s foreboding that this wasn’t natural weather proved correct. It was smog form the factories polluting the almost treeless countryside, and from household chimneys which belched forth greasy coal dust. All this dirt in the atmosphere condensed, then poured down as scooty acid rain which killed forests, and ran into the water table, creating a souplike breeding-ground for viruses. People drank it, ate it and breathed it into their lungs. Tuberculosis and typhoid killed the young and the poor at unprecedented rates.
Many writers mourned this blight over a once-pastoral country, but tended to shy away from connecting it with an economy spurred by greed, which allowed industry to build almost unchecked, and with very little concern for the environment. One person who did intuit just what was happening was Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, a young Jesuit priest and poet. His love for nature, combined with his study of the Medieval theologican, Johannes Dun Scotus (c.1264-1308) to produce powerful imaginative writing about the relation between God and creation. Hopkins had attended Oxford University when it was still a “towery city and branchy between towers” surrounded by trees and fields which ran all the way up to its ancient walls. He trained as a Jesuit in the countryside of north Wales, where shepherds still pastured flocks on the wild mountainsides, as yet unspoiled by coal mines. In Hopkins’s poetry, the virgin wilderness is all Welsh. Alas, after he finished his training, however, he was sent to missions in London, Liverpool, and Glasgow, then finally Dublin: all heavily industrial cities where buildings were darkened with soot and the air was fetid. His parishioners were the poor who worked dangerous, stultifying jobs at looms and machine presses. They earned so little that many had to send their children to labor at even more hazardous trades, as chimney sweeps or crossing sweepers where about one third of them died in work-related accidents. What little money came in was often spent on alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of injured muscles and spiritual hopelessness. Their suffering preyed on Hopkins’s heart, but he could do little to alter their lives. Instead, he began to think theologically about what was happening to the world, and to write about what he valued most – the natural beauty of rural areas.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God;/ It will shine out…”begins one of the poet’s sonnets. Why, he asks, do we then have trouble seeing the Creator’s face written on the landscape? Because we have defaced it:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell;
The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And yet, “for all this, nature is never spent: since “there lives
the dearest freshness deep down things” renewing itself always because
the Holy Spirit moves through all matter and “over the bent/world broods
with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Unlike Thomas Aquinas – who stressed the profound difference between humankind and the rest of creation – the Franciscan Duns Scotus believed that divine Love was present in all creatures (including plants and even rocks) linking them with the Creator and with each other. Hence Hopkins’s conviction that God is revealed in Nature which speaks of its Creator in a voice “charged” as with electricity or some equally powerful energy. The Poem, “Pied Beauty” hymns the breathtaking variety in skies, leaves, animals, and hills. In their mind-bewildering forms, each tells of an infinite Godhead beyond definition, yet glimpsed in part through each of them. Hopkins always celebrates uniqueness:
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:
The choice of highly unusual words (some coined by the poet),
together with the continually shifting meter, emphasizes this joy in
individual differences. Untamed variability preaches against
machine-made uniformity, and cries out against the oppression of the
working-class whom drudgery turns into interchangeable automatons.
Near the end of his short life, Hopkins briefly returned to Oxford. There, he found to his horror that the river which runs through the town was being harnessed to run factories. A particularly favorite spot of his had been denuded of trees so that new housing could be erected for the workers who would be imported there. “O if we but knew what we do/when we delve or hew–” mourned the poet. “Hack and rack the growing green!” He compared the rape of the country to plucking out an eyeball so that it cannot see any longer. For him, landscape speaks to our sight. As we absorb the view, it becomes “inscape” which enlightens our perception of the world, of our fellows, and of Christ and God in both. To perceive truly becomes a way of receiving God. When we destroy the living things around us, and wantonly fill the space with our clutter, we numb our spirits, empty ourselves of compassion, cut ourselves off from feeling Christ’s love, much less doing his work in the world. Hopkins’s poem are written to the greater glory of God (the Jesuit motto). But in that glory, there lies a warning against falling into selfish destruction.
Unfortunately, the poet’s superiors in his order found his work too individualistic, and forbade him to publish. He was probably too radical in both form and message for any Victorian publication, in any case. Our century’s ability to appreciate him is connected with our growing realization of just how interconnected we are with our environment. Worn out by work, and depressed by continual misunderstandings, Hopkins eventually contracted tuberculosis. In 1889, dangerously weaked, he caught typhoid and died quickly, just short of his 45th birthday. His youth and passion for the marvelous strangeness of creation still leaps at us from his poems.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds in the wilderness yet.