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Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1844-1889)  

In some of the most original poetry of the Victorian period, the sexually-repressed Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated male beauty as one of the most splendid witnesses to the divine.

Born into a financially comfortable family of marine insurance adjustors, the oldest of nine children, Hopkins was small of stature and extremely lively of mind. Acceptance into Balliol College, Oxford, on a classics scholarship allowed him to study with Benjamin Jowett, the influential translator of Plato and discreet commentator on "Greek love," and Walter Pater, who would later become the center of a cult of young men dedicated to Greek beauty, Renaissance intensity, and modern aestheticism.

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But it was the lingering shadow of John Henry Newman that most influenced Hopkins at Oxford. At age twenty-two, Hopkins not only converted to Roman Catholicism but, on the advice of Newman, shortly afterward entered the Jesuit order, in which he was ordained a priest in 1877 after years of rigorous study.

He taught at various Jesuit schools until 1885, when he was elected professor of classics at University College, Dublin, in whose cold, damp climate Hopkins's ever-weak constitution gradually failed. He died only four years later, of typhoid fever, after a period of somewhat questionable emotional stability.

It is unlikely that Hopkins would have considered himself a homosexual. Recently reproduced diaries from his Oxford years, however, reveal an obsessive concern with male beauty, complemented by a fear of what seem coded references to masturbatory fantasizing. (He felt enormous guilt, for example, over being distracted from a religious service by a choirboy's beauty, and had repeatedly to resolve to avoid "imprudent looking" at fellow students, at a roommate when naked, and even at men playing public sports.)

The closest he seems to have come to indulging his feelings was during his years at Oxford in his crush on Digby Mackworth Dolben, a religiously flamboyant, emotionally immature youth three years his junior.

Dolben encouraged Hopkins's Anglo-Catholicism, whose emphasis on baroque ritual, brocaded vestments, ornate church fixtures, and Latin chant offered many oriented men of the period a pious channel for their sensual impulses, and in whose idealization of male chastity many found a fortuitous alternative to the Victorian idealization of marriage and family.

Indeed, Hopkins's later choice of the rigorous, mortifying rule of the Jesuits seems to have been a deliberate attempt to discipline what he feared were his dangerously sensuous preoccupations.

Hopkins's personal relations seem never to have recovered from the shock of Dolben's drowning in 1867, aged only nineteen; he became increasingly withdrawn in his relations, allowing friendly feelings to emerge only from a safe distance in his extraordinary correspondences with future poet-laureate Robert Bridges and fellow religious poets Coventry Patmore and Canon Dixon.

What Hopkins suppressed in his emotional and sexual relations, however, he was free to express in some of the most original poetry of the Victorian period. His poems depend on a sensuous rush of words restrained by the most rigorous of meters, creating an explosive world of sensual fullness whose expression is carefully controlled.

Hopkins's insistence that all natural beauty is the revelation of an inhering godhead sacramentalizes but cannot obscure the fundamentally deep sensuousness of Hopkins's nature. And as Michael Lynch points out, male beauty proved for Hopkins to be one of the most splendid witnesses to the divine.

For example, writing ecstatically of a young "bugler boy" making his first communion, Hopkins praises "Christ's darling" as the "breathing bloom of a chastity in mansexfine," concluding that "it does my heart good" to see "limber liquid youth . . . yield . . . tender as a pushed peach" to his catechetical instruction.

A more telling instance of Hopkins's sublimated homoeroticism, however, is the "Epithalamion" that he began as a wedding gift for a younger brother and his fiancée.

Its initial description of a rural paradisal setting in which the young heterosexual lovers may roam as a prelapsarian Adam and Eve is quickly overtaken by the poet's homoerotic fantasy of "a listless stranger" who is restored to joy by the sight of naked boys frolicking in a secluded pool. "Here [the stranger] feasts: lovely is all," the poet exclaims, and no amount of pious commentary can recover the poem from its unintended digression from the celebration of "spousal love."

Raymond-Jean Frontain

     

 
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    Bibliography
   

Bristow, Joseph. "'Churlsgrace': Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Working-Class Male Body." ELH 59(1992): 693-711.

Dellamora, Richard. Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Hilliard, David. "UnEnglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality." Victorian Studies 25 (Winter 1982): 181-210.

Lynch, Michael. "Recovering Hopkins, Recovering Ourselves." Hopkins Quarterly 6 (1979): 107-117.

Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.

Overholser, Renée O. "'Looking with Terrible Temptation': Gerard Manley Hopkins and Beautiful Bodies." Victorian Literature and Culture 19 (1991): 25-53.

Saville, Julia F. A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Hopkins, Gerard Manley  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 10, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/hopkins_gm.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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