Gerard Manley Hopkins was acclaimed in the twentieth century as amongst the greatest modern poets: his language and his poetic experiments spoke to a time, after the First World War, that rejected Victorian attitudes, Victorian poetry and Victorian poetic language. Yet, paradoxically, Hopkins had died in 1889, over a decade before the Victorian age ended and he was in many respects a true Victorian. In his life he was known as a promising student who became a Catholic and a Jesuit priest who, as he himself was all too aware, seemed to have achieved little and to have served God to little purpose, a man virtually unknown as a poet, his work unpublished until thirty years after his death. His poetic language and forms, his integration of nature, that great Romantic force, with the strict doctrines of Catholicism, made a new poetry, unlike that of Tennyson, Browning or Matthew Arnold. Hopkins indeed was compared to Walt Whitman, whose loose rhythms sought, like Hopkins’s experiments, to forge new poetic forms. Accepting the comparison with the American poet, Hopkins also saw himself as startlingly like the man – a pity, he remarked, since Whitman was ‘a very great scoundrel’ (L, 1.155). That wry recognition of the ruﬃan in his own nature hints at Hopkins’s sense of humour and a vein of self-deprecation in a man who saw himself clearly (not always quite liking what he saw). Outwardly, Hopkins’s life is not obviously eventful, yet each phase proved deeply signiﬁcant for his poetry, not least the long interval (1868-75) when he renounced poetic creation. Three aspects in particular intertwine: friendship; conversion and
priesthood; aesthetic theories and poetic achievement. Friendship helped on his conversion, gave him critical support in his poetry, and developed an emotional life that found poetic expression. Conversion
led to Catholicism and the Society of Jesus; to the tension between God and poetic creativity; and in the poetry itself both to the reconciliation of God with Nature and to an anguished sense of exclusion from God. Aesthetic theories and poetic development produced the astonishing representations of Nature and of God in Nature and the daring experiments in language and rhythm that baﬄed those of his contemporaries who ever knew them and caused this Victorian to be proclaimed a Modern in the twentieth century and to sustain him as a truly great poet in the twenty-ﬁrst.