Friday, March 25, 2022

Poetry Friday: Gerard Manley Hopkins


The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Feast! Today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation. I've been running behind on everything this week, including getting a Poetry Friday post together, but this morning Atticus suggested "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. 

Ah. Yes. Perfect. 

Hopkins has always fascinated me. From Poetry Foundation

Gerard Manley Hopkins is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era. However, because his style was so radically different from that of his contemporaries, his best poems were not accepted for publication during his lifetime, and his achievement was not fully recognized until after World War I. Hopkins’s family encouraged his artistic talents when he was a youth in Essex, England. However, Hopkins became estranged from his Protestant family when he converted to Roman Catholicism. Upon deciding to become a priest, he burned all of his poems and did not write again for many years. His work was not published until 30 years after his death when his friend Robert Bridges edited the volume Poems.

That entry includes an extensive bio of Hopkins — it's long but well worth your time. As a melancholic/INFJ/Enneagram 4/Questioner/all-around-party-killer myself, I've always been intrigued by Hopkins, who wrote one of my most beloved poems about grief, "No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief."  I love that piece for its brutal honesty, the way it confronts the devastation of loss and acknowledges that no matter how deeply one believes in God, we are gutted when we lose someone we love. There is no denying our humanity: "Comforter, where, where is your comforting?/Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?" 

The Poetry Foundation says: 

According to his own testimony Hopkins was subject to melancholy all his life, but his “terrible pathos,” as Dixon called it, is most obvious in these late sonnets. Following Saint Ignatius, Hopkins defined “spiritual sloth” or “desolation” as “darkness and confusion of soul ... diffidence without hope and without love, so that [the soul] finds itself altogether slothful, tepid, sad, and as it were separated from its Creator and Lord.” Called acedia in Latin, this sin is differentiated from physical sloth by the fact that the victim realizes his predicament, worries about it, and tries to overcome it.

The sense of coldness, impotence, and wastefulness evident in Hopkins’s religious poetry of the 1860s is an important feature of acedia, but by far the most important is “world sorrow,” the predicament lamented in Hopkins’s “No worst, there is none” (1885). 

See? I told you I was a party killer. 

Because today is not about death and grief, but about life and a particular kind of celebration, so it's time to switch gears a bit. At the Annunciation, Mary was asked if she would say yes to the incomprehensible. (I do feel compelled to point out that this was, in its way, a kind of death, the death of the life Mary had known but hey, we melancholics can relate everything to death. It's a talent.) The Annunciation was also a turning point and a model for us: Mary said yes to a staggering request. What am I asked to say yes to? When God asks the incomprehensible of me, do I remember Gabriel's words to Mary: "Do not be afraid"? On a good day, I both say yes and am not afraid. Not every day is a good day but today I'm shaking off my melancholic tendencies and party-killing ways and I will celebrate accordingly. I will not be afraid, I will say yes, I will take comfort in the Comforter and find relief in Mary's ways. 

Here are some excerpts from Hopkins's beautiful poem, "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe": 

This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—


Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light.   Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.

(Read the whole thing here, at the website of the International Hopkins Association.) 


Amy Ludwig Vanderwater has the round-up at The Poem Farm


  1. There's That One Hopkins Poem which most people know, and then there's his zillion other poems which remain a mystery. I've started using his unfamiliar poems as mentor texts in the past year, and this is a new one for me. I've also started to read him aloud, because his love of words simply demands it. I like that this poem seems to use fewer tongue-twisting leaps into places I don't understand -- but while it's hardly simple, it sort of hews to the blinding clarity of the love of a mother for her child, or The Mother, as it were. And I think the comparison to "world-mothering air" is brilliant. Thanks for sharing this one.

  2. Lovely reflection, Karen. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for these words. You are not a party killer; you help us see things honestly. And that grief poem...the last line...I have had that feeling, and it is raw and real and such a relief to see it reflected back. Back and forth and here and there- melancholy and gratitude and joy and wonder. We go round and round. I wish you balance and beauty. xo

  4. Karen, I love how complex and reflective your post is. It's interesting you brought up enneagrams too. I believe I am a one. I'll have to go back and check for sure though. It's been a while since I looked at those and took the quiz. I think there is a lot of duplicity to life and this quality is one I see being brought forth in your extensive examination of Hopkins. Thank you! Peace!

  5. If it can't be Billy Collins, then by all means make it GMH. Thank you for this new-to-me poem, for azure used as a verb, for sky that "...does no prejudice" with its "seven or seven times seven
    Hued sunbeam."

  6. Among all his words, some I needed to read more thoroughly, I love the title's importance, or implication, Karen. I haven't read many of Hopkins' poems and love that you gave us an intro to him that also seems important to know. Thank you, & Atticus, too!

  7. Your topic in the post dovetails with a poem we just read in anthology, Ballad of the Bread Man by Charles Causley (we're reading a poem a day after dinner). I find it fascinating to see how writers in different eras engage with one of the oldest stories. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  8. Tanita: "There's That One Hopkins Poem which most people know, and then there's his zillion other poems which remain a mystery." Yes!! :) Using his unfamiliar ones at mentor texts is brilliant. I love that.

    Penelope, thank you!

    Amy, thanks so much for those kind words and your as-always huge heart. ❤️

    Carol, thank you so much! The enneagram typing gets so complex, but I never "test" out as anything but a 4. :D I need to go read up on the 1 type again!

    Mary Lee, yes, Billy or GMH or bust. :D

    Linda, thank you and I will pass your words onto Atticus too. :)

    Elisabeth, I don't know the poem you mentioned so now I'm off to find it. Thank you!