herald

Saturday 19 August 2017

This is the one hundred and seventieth anniversary of the birth of one of the three finest poets in the English language. But poor Gerard Manley Hopkins never got any attention in his lifetime, which was spent largely in a Jesuit community.

This is the one hundred and seventieth anniversary of the birth of one of the three finest poets in the English language. But poor Gerard Manley Hopkins never got any attention in his lifetime, which was spent largely in a Jesuit community.

In fact, it was among the Irish Jesuits in St Stephen's Green that he died. He had come over as Professor of English in Newman's Catholic University of Ireland. At this time he had hardly a poem published in his lifetime.

Then, in 1918, his friend Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, published Hopkins collected poems and immediately his genius was recognised.

The Jesuits have him cuddled up on their memorial among a few hundred names in Glasnevin Cemetery. The thing is, the bold Gerry did write verse which, at first hearing, was difficult to understand.

But once you got the key to the verbal music there was no excuse for not recognising his gifts.

I think my favourite Hopkins poem is Felix Randal, which tells of a dying blacksmith, whom Hopkins had attended during the last months of his illness.

We see the man on his death bed stripped now of his powerful strength and are given a glimpse of him in his prime, massive muscles gleaming in the dim forge as he swings his hammer to shape the molten steel for the horse.

Read out loud, the last two lines can evoke the crash of steel upon the anvil.

Hopkins infuses magic into the most ordinary words with his mastery of sprung rhythm.

You may have to do it for a week or two before the rhythm breaks through, but it's worth it.

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