Sunday 26 March 2017

Ulick O'Connor - Poetry: Poet exiled in a land he didn't understand

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Some reckon Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry is up there with the top five in the English language. This could be a bit much but he is up there somewhere. Our connection with him is that he came to Dublin from Stonyhurst College, England, as a lecturer in 1885 to the Jesuit-run Catholic university at 86 St Stephen's Green. A Jesuit himself, he was somewhat unorthodox.

"I admire the Communist philosophy," he confided to a fellow Jesuit.

"The ideal behind some things is nobler than that professed in any secular statesman I know. England is founded on wrecking, but its wealth has not reached the working class."

You can imagine how this went down with Old Clongownians and Old Belvederians at University College. But Hopkins was a true rebel who gave the benefit of goodwill to everyone. On the whole, though, his life was incredibly sad, exiled in a land that he didn't quite understand.

Today, if you are passing the building at 86 St Stephen's Green, you can look up and see on the top floor, the window of Hopkins' room where he died in 1889. It was not until three decades after his death that his friend, the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, published Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems and the Jesuit priest was recognised as a major poet. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in a mass Jesuit grave. There is an alphabetical list of the dead, and when your finger reaches the letter 'H', you have your man.

He wrote his verse in what he called "sprung rhythm", which comes up best if his poems are spoken out loud. In his 'God's Grandeur', he sees the presence of God in both the last lights of night and the brown brink of morning.

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