Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges: Glory be to God for altruism

A draft manuscript of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ celebrated work “Binsey Poplars” has been bought at auction by Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. Written in 1879, the poem was first published in 1918.

Hopkins, who died in 1889 at the age of 44, wrote “Binsey Poplars” while he was a curate at St Aloysius’s Church, Oxford, which used to house a collection of sacred relics and curios amassed by Hartwell de la Garde Grissell, including a portion of the Crown of Thorns and the entire body of boy martyr St Pacificus. The centrepiece of the collection was the reputedly miraculous image of the Madonna called “Mater Misericordia” and popularly known as “Our Lady of Oxford”.

Monet-poplarsGerard Manley Hopkins penned “Binsey Poplars” in response to the felling of trees running alongside the River Thames in Binsey, a village to the west of Oxford. It was only published when his friend, the poet Robert Bridges, edited a volume of Hopkins’ poems. The trees in Binsey were replanted in 1918, and when they were cut down again in 2004, Hopkins’s poem was part of the successful campaign to have them replanted.

The poem’s theme resonates well in today’s age of greater awareness of the environment and biodiversity, whose destruction its second verse laments:

“O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew –
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will made no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.”

hopkinsGerard Manley Hopkins is regarded as one the Victorian era’s greatest poets. Having studied Classics at Oxford, in 1867 he decided to become a Jesuit priest and burnt all the poems he had written to date. Hopkins only began to write again in 1875 after a German passenger steamship was wrecked during a storm off the English coast. The poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, introduced what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm”. He also began placing familiar words in surprising contexts. One poem in particular, “Pied Beauty”, was a favourite of English headmasters at morning assemblies:

“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 áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.”

Robert Bridges, named poet laureate of England in 1913 and the only medical graduate to have held the post, was friends with Hopkins at Oxford. Bridges was never a very well known poet and only achieved popularity shortly before his death with The Testament of Beauty. Yet, in act of artistic altruism and nearly 20 years after Hopkins’s death from typhoid fever, Bridges compiled and edited a volume of his friend’s peculiar, tormented poems. Gerard Manley Hopkins became the founder of modern English poetry and Robert Bridges was relegated to history’s long list of also-rans.

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