Religion brought Gerard Manley Hopkins conviction and inspiration throughout his life — but it also carried Hopkins into a deep depression. His “terrible” poems emerged from this period of despair, mostly focusing on Hopkins’ feelings of isolation and melancholy. Part of this misery probably arose from the social stigma he felt as a Roman Catholic; his family disowned him, and many in England took a similarly negative and suspicious view of Catholics. Yet the “terrible” poems were written in a time long after Hopkin’s conversion. Hopkins uses his isolated situation in life to echo his internal feelings of isolation from God. His untitled poem reads:

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
      England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

      I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

The reader finds mentions of Hopkin’s life immediately: he describes his family as “not near in Christ” and tells the reader of his “remove” to Ireland. Having established these two separations, from family as well as from country, Hopkins asserts that he finds himself at a third “remove,” one that he explicates less clearly. Yet this “remove” becomes clear when the reader notes the similarity of his language to Corinthians 1.13:

Charity never faileth: but whether [there be] prophecies, they shall fail; whether [there be] tongues, they shall cease; whether [there be] knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

The passages are clearly linked, from the initial image of Hopkins as a stranger (unable to fully comprehend and know God) among strangers to the usage of “dark” as a description of Heaven. Hopkins dealt with his divide from his family, but upon moving to Ireland felt himself distanced from God himself. This division, the dark glass between himself and God, causes the depression. Christ becomes, then, “my peace / my parting, sword and strife.” He sees God as salvation, but also recognizes the “baffling ban” that prevents him from feeling fulfilled on Earth. Yet Hopkins does not decry his suffering and feelings of despair; instead he views them as a way to become uplifted. “Not but in all removes I can kind love both give and get,” he says, meaning that only through his trials can he arrive at the grace of God. He continues by saying:

   Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

These lines indicate that writing exists as the only way for Hopkins to dispel his feelings of isolation from God. His poetry becomes his only way to thwart “hell’s spell.” However, his social disengagement prevents his poetry from becoming an all-healing balm: his religious views (which he espouses through his poetry) are “unheard” and “unheeded.” Just as 1 Corinthians says, “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail,” Hopkins’ words are not enough to bridge the gap to the rest of Anglican England, and thus he exists distanced from God, among others who refuse not only his religion but also his “unheeded” words: a true stranger among strangers, indeed.


1. Tennyson uses imagery from the same Biblical passage in his prologue to In Memoriam. Tennyson acknowledges the flawed nature of the relationship between man and God in a way similar to Hopkins, admitting that a gap exists between human and divine. Tennyson’s poem ends on a hopeful note — he seems positive that a deeper and closer relationship will develop. Does Hopkins share this feeling of hope? Does he offer any mention of development or a way in which his “lonely began” may change?

2. What does Hopkins mean when he says “I weary of idle a being but by where wars are rife”?

3. Hopkins says he is “at a third remove.” The number three naturally evokes the concept of the Trinity; does Hopkins then align himself with the Trinity? What significance does this number carry, if any?

Last modified 19 April 2011