Gerard Manley Hopkins was an awesome poet in spite of himself. Here's what we mean by that: He wrote some verses here and there as a youngster, but then went through a phase as a young adult when he stopped writing poetry altogether. Finally (thank goodness) he started up again, but refused to publish. Talk about self-denial. This was one seriously modest, probably insecure poet.
Nowadays, Hopkins is now considered one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era (that would be during the reign of Queen Victoria in Britain, or 1837-1901). But the poor guy was hardly recognized during his own lifetime, which was tragically short—he died of typhoid fever in 1889, when he was only 45.
His life was brief, yes, but totally fascinating, too. His parents were very devout Anglicans (Anglican refers to members of the Church of England, and is pretty much the same as "Episcopalian" in the United States), and young Hopkins was brought up to be very religious. Even when he was at boarding school, he read from the Bible every single day. When he was at Oxford, he blew them all away by taking first in his class in both of his majors. He was like the Hermione Granger of his day. Only instead of magic, he thought he'd try poetry…
But something was bugging him. He felt like the Anglican Church, although founded way back in the 1500s, wasn't authoritative enough for him. Then, while still at Oxford, he met John Henry Newman, an older writer and teacher who had converted to Roman Catholicism. Hopkins was wowed by what he learned, and converted to Catholicism pronto, eventually becoming a Jesuit priest.
This was great for him personally, but not so good for his poetry. You see, he decided that poetry was too much about personal ambition and individual accomplishment, and he felt that as a priest, he should be trying to do away with all personal and individual desires and goals. This notion got him so riled up, he actually burned all his early poems.
Later on, though, he decided that poetry could actually serve a religious purpose. How? Well, first he came up with the idea that every person and object in the world had unique, individual characteristics, which he called the object's inscape (yes, this is a totally made-up word). An object's inscape was held together by a kind of spiritual glue, which he called instress. Getting to know an object's "inscape," according to Hopkins, and showing that "inscape" through words in poetry, was a way of getting closer to God. He came up with a whole new way of writing poetry to reflect these, too, which he called sprung rhythm. The whole goal was to get poetry to sound more like natural spoken language.
So Hopkins found a way to get around his scruples about writing poetry, but he also found that his fellow Victorians just weren't ready for the kind of wacky, revolutionary changes to poetic language and form that his poems introduced. Most of his poems weren't even published until 1918—almost 30 years after his death. We guess the world just wasn't ready for inscape, instress, sprung rhythm, or the awesomeness that is Hopkins in "The Windhover."
In this poem, published in 1918 (though it was written in 1877), Hopkins seems to be just admiring a bird. Big whoop. But through inscape, instress, sprung rhythm, and a few more poetic tricks up his sleeve, he transforms a simple image of a bird into an intense meditation on religious epiphany.
We guess those Victorians just didn't know a good poem when they read it. (Sorry, Tennyson.)
Why Should I Care?
Hopkins's poetry is difficult to read. There, we said it. He makes up words left and right, and the rhythm of the words (which he called sprung rhythm) is so unusual that it can cause readers to trip over their own tongues. Just when you think you know what's coming next, the rhythm changes or he throws in a new, unexpected word.
But Hopkins's poems are not meant to be read quickly, and they're not meant to be read only once. This is serious business. One effect of the unusual rhythm and the made-up words is to throw you off and to make you think. You're forced to read more slowly, and to read the words again, and again, and again.
That's because Hopkins was in love with language. He uses language and words in wacky and astonishing ways to make us think about and see everyday objects—like a bird flying in the sky in "The Windhover"—in new and unexpected ways. So if you take the time to read Hopkins slowly, to drink in each word and let the whole thing wash over you, you might find yourself falling in love with language—or with birds—all over again, too.