Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on 28 July 1844 to parents who were devout High Anglicans. Some of his father’s poems had already been published, and young Gerard showed early poetic promise at school.
At Oxford his brilliance as a student of the Classics drew recognition from leading academics of the day. At the same time, his High Church background, sympathies with the aesthetics of Ruskin, a feeling for the poetry of Christina Rossetti and the search for a religion that could speak with true authority made it almost inevitable that he would find in the example of the future Cardinal Henry Newman the motivation to convert to Roman Catholicism. Admission to The Society of Jesus followed. Convinced, however, that poetry was too individualistic and self-indulgent a pursuit for a Jesuit priest committed to the subordination of personal ambition, he burned the manuscripts of his early poems. (Fortunately, he had already given copies of many of them to his friend Robert Bridges, who was able to circulate them after the poet’s death.)
The turning point came on encountering the writings of Duns Scotus, a medieval Catholic thinker. At last Hopkins was able to recognise poetry as something that did not necessarily conflict with his newly found Jesuit principles. He had already arrived independently at his own idea of “inscape”, by which he meant the group of characteristics giving anything its uniqueness and differentiating it from other things; and so he began to write once again. Then, while studying Theology in Wales in the mid-1870s, he discovered the Welsh language and with it the poetical metres that would inspire his later work; from these he developed what he called “sprung rhythm”.
Recently voted among Britain’s top hundred poems, God’s Grandeur of 1877 combines all these influences on his poetry with a fully individual voice. It resonates down the years as a perfect expression of wonder at the nature of Creation.
Here the poem is set below a view of Salisbury Cathedral, one of the great Catholic cathedrals of England’s medieval past that continues as a modern Anglican place of Christian worship. Silhouetted against a spectacular mid-winter sunset, the image seems to epitomise the tension central to Hopkins’s struggle for understanding, that between Man’s fine but ultimately imperfect achievements on the one hand, and God’s unassailable magnificence on the other.
The pattern of indentations for the different lines follows the way this poem is always printed, presumably as Hopkins intended.
(A technical note. The bottom of the image was black, but the canvas had to be extended downwards in the same colour to accommodate the text. Some scaffolding was also removed from the North Transept!)