Ten must-read Gerard Manley Hopkins poems: Poetry to scratch our bellies on

Gerard Manley Hopkins was an innovator who wrote about nature and faith, rapture and despair. For me, we are all eccentrics, all individuals. Not everyone will share this view, but Gerard Manley Hopkins was idiosyncratic on anyone’s terms, often to his cost.

While at Balliol College at Oxford, he converted to Catholicism, tearing himself from his artistic, loving Anglican family to a tougher life as a Jesuit. He never regretted his decision, but struggled with depression and the drudgery of some of his duties. Conflicted about whether writing was compatible with his vocation, he wrote relatively little after his conversion. At the time of his premature death in 1889 his work was largely unknown.

Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate and a close friend, started to ease his poetry into anthologies, then published his collected works in 1918. Their reprint in 1930 somehow triggered an avalanche of admirers: he’s been on reading lists ever since.

My top ten Gerard Manley Hopkins poems

Titles are simply the first line in many cases, and link through to the full texts on the excellent Bartleby.com. I’ve included a brief extract from each to give you a feel for the poem. Hopkins touches on subjects that could be triggers. If you feel vulnerable, please read this post on poetry instead.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend

I love this poem: the more I read it, the more I’m moved. Artists and creatives everywhere will recognize this mood:

…See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Ready for a weird confession? I always imagine I hear fresh raindrops falling as I read the last few words, which adds to the beauty of the verse. You might be able to hear them too.

Pied Beauty

A song for us all, in praise of ‘dappled things’

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

– for are we not all dappled, each in our own way?

The Windhover

My pleasure comes from the way we can feel the bird (a kestrel) riding the air through the mastery of the language.

…in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief 

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee

That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

My own heart let me have more have pity on;

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room;


When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace?

Binsey Poplars
felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
Are felled, felled, are all felled;

Reading this lament, I can imagine what Gerard Manley Hopkins might have made of the recent fracking proposals.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

I discovered this poem while writing this post – time will tell if it’s started winding its way into my heart.

The Woodlark

Finally, some lines from an unpublished fragment – just a snippet, but I love the way the poet mimics bird song.

Through the velvety wind V-winged
To the nest’s nook I balance and buoy
With a sweet joy of a sweet joy,
Sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy
Of a sweet—a sweet—sweet—joy.

If I’ve missed out one of your favourites, please share it in the comments.

Ten tips on reading Gerard Manley Hopkins

If you’re new to Hopkins, these tips might help.

  1. Read instinctively.
  2. Don’t worry if you only partly understand some of it: the enigma in the Mona Lisa’s face doesn’t lessen our enjoyment of the painting.
  3. Read out loud.
  4. Keep coming back.
  5. Read stress marks as a deft touch by a rider on a horse’s flank to guide you when you might be tempted to gloss over some of the words.
  6. Celebrate what’s most characterful.
  7. Form a relationship with one or two poems.
  8. Listen for the way the words capture not just sense, but sound and movement too.
  9. If the rhythm intrigues you, read Hopkins on the technical aspects¹ (see footnotes).
  10. Check out his word inscape.

Is he obscure?

Gerard Manley Hopkins doesn’t always trot us down a path through a rolling meadow: he drags us down steep woodland paths, over hedgerows, muddy ditches and even barbed wire fences, risking the odd scratch on our bellies along the way. Like many creative people, he was precise, opinionated: he wanted to direct.

My dismissive young mind couldn’t forgive William Blake for appearing to write in cypher, and I’ve never been back to revisit my first impressions. I don’t get that feeling with Hopkins at all. We just pay some price for his quirkiness and his willingness to innovate with language.

Some of his made up words are disruptive – reading them makes you blink.

…as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

I wonder if we’d have felt the same jolt when Shakespeare starting coining words?

It’s rare I find literary notes particularly helpful, but the comment (also on on Bartleyby.com) takes the biscuit for the most inconsequential one I’ve ever spotted:

This word [betweenpie] might have delighted William Barnes [who?] if the verb ’to pie’ existed.


Last words

Kindhearted readers will be glad to know that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ final words are said to have been, ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’²

I can’t help comparing them to the words my sweetheart remembers thinking when he believed he was going to die (mistakenly, I’m glad to report): ‘That was great!’

But that’s another story.


¹ Gerard Manley Hopkins on rhythm, from the author’s preface to the collected poems:

…the reversal of the first foot and of some middle foot after a strong pause is a thing so natural that our poets have generally done it, from Chaucer down, without remark and it commonly passes unnoticed and cannot be said to amount to a formal change of rhythm, but rather is that irregularity which all natural growth and motion shews. If however the reversal is repeated in two feet running, especially so as to include the sensitive second foot, it must be due either to great want of ear or else is a calculated effect, the superinducing or mounting of a new rhythm upon the old; and since the new or mounted rhythm is actually heard and at the same time the mind naturally supplies the natural or standard foregoing rhythm, for we do not forget what the rhythm is that by rights we should be hearing, two rhythms are in some manner running at once and we have something answerable to counterpoint in music, which is two or more strains of tune going on together, and this is Counterpoint Rhythm.

² Eleanor Ruggles (1944) Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life.


5 Replies to “Ten must-read Gerard Manley Hopkins poems: Poetry to scratch our bellies on”

  1. Oh, you bring back happy memories. I loved Hopkins in school. Felix Randall, the farrier, big-boned and hardy handsome has stayed with me all these years. Thank you.

  2. Our family loves “Pied Beauty” especially. We have a French bulldog who is “honey-pied” in color, with spots that look as if cafe au lait has been spilled on her back. She also happens to be deaf (from puppyhood), so Hopkins’ admonishment to love all original/imperfect beings as gifts from God reminds each of us what a blessing our dear pet has been. By the way, we taught her sign language!

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