Gerard Manley Hopkins – ‘O the mind’

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

I have been fascinated by a biography of the Catholic Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) picked up in the excellent Mrs Middleton’s second hand bookshop in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. One of the aspects that resonated once again was the links and interweaving of the psychological and the spiritual. The link between Hopkins’ psychological struggles and his spiritual vocation is present throughout his adult life. The biographer states that the poet was too devout to mistake depression for spirituality, but the pain of what he felt emotionally undoubtedly sharpened his search for God’s presence. Hopkins might have thought of it as God’s way of directing him to the priesthood. Psychological insights and awareness of emotional difficulties were relatively limited in the way we might now think about them – this is pre-Freud but the biography reveals how often his spiritual inclinations fitted his psychological needs.

The biographer Robert Bernard Martin notes how Hopkins’ perceptions of his motivations are frequently startling combining an initial attribution to religious reasons, then a shrewd awareness that they also spring out of the predispositions of his own personality. The two views are not in conflict but seen as phenomena discussed using different perspectives and vocabularies but with the same patterning. Hopkins was interested in his dreams, working out (well before Freud and Jung) that ‘you can trace your dreams to something or other in your working life, especially of things that have been lately … But the connection may be capricious, almost punning.’

Tuned in to his own emotional state Hopkins describes how on an early retreat as a novice in the Jesuit training college in Roehampton, when one of his fellow novices was reading an account of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, he, Hopkins, suddenly ‘began to cry and sob and could not stop.’ He was deeply moved by all accounts of the religiously dispossessed and the persecuted.

Hopkins’ love for the charismatic but ill-fated Digby Dolben and other young men is painfully both partially acknowledged then denied and repressed, with Hopkins probably determined on celibacy long before his time at Oxford. Martin asks whether celibacy for Hopkins and many others could be seen as a way of avoiding the admission even to himself of his homoerotic feelings. For Hopkins this sometimes was translated into repression of all physical beauty – so an act of penance became one of keeping his eyes on the ground. At times what he saw as sensual temptation became so strong that he despondently found he became excited at thinking of Christ’s passion or at examining Christ’s body on a carved crucifix.

As he became older the depressions intensified exacerbated by the lack of affection towards him and any atmosphere of human warmth in his life as a Jesuit. In one letter to his long-time friend the poet Robert Bridges Hopkins wrote: ‘I think that my fits of sadness, though they do not affect my judgement, resemble madness.’ And from this state of mind he wrote the Sonnets of Desolation also known as the Terrible Sonnets.