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Perspectives victoriennes

Le Darwin de Hopkins: déchiffrage contextuel

Hopkins the Darwinian: a Contextual Unriddling
Cary H. Plotkin
p. 476-489


Gérard Manley Hopkins était bien placé pour apprécier la controverse qui sévissait parmi les scientifiques, les ecclésiastiques et les laïcs autour du darwinisme et de l’évolutionnisme en général. Naturaliste à la manière victorienne, exercé aux catégories philosophiques classiques du programme d’Oxford, formé en théologie jésuite, poète de la nature et de Dieu, il semblerait en effet avoir les qualités requises d’un «témoin-clé de l’âge de Darwin». Pourtant il fait rarement mention de ce dernier ou de la lutte historique qui faisait rage entre la foi et la science, lutte ravivée par la parution de L’Origine des espèces. Et lorsqu’il y fait allusion, ses remarques sont sereines, malgré la forte tradition au XIXe siècle, de biblicisme littéral des Églises protestante et catholique. D’ailleurs, l’Église catholique ne mit à l’Index aucun ouvrage de Darwin et ne s’engagea sur aucune politique ou enseignement à propos de l’évolution des espèces avant 1893, date de l’encyclique Providentissimus Deus, encyclique assez équivoque au demeurant. En effet, l’exégèse catholique puisait à l’autorité des Pères et Docteurs de l’Église dont les enseignements étaient dans certains cas plus radicaux que la théorie de Darwin. En 1998, l’ouverture aux chercheurs des archives du Vatican se rapportant à cette question a dévoilé et l’absence d’une doctrine de l’Église catholique et une incohérence disciplinaire qui semblèrent laisser aux croyants une certaine latitude à propos du darwinisme.

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Notes de la rédaction

Adapted from a keynote address delivered 28 March 2009 at the The Gerard Manley Hopkins Conference at Regis University, Denver, Colorado. Cary Plotkin 2009. All rights reserved.

Texte intégral

1An unusual interest in scientific accounts of the natural phenomena that surround the warm center of belief in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins until his last years ought to have placed him at the traumatic center of disruption magnified by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. The scientific attack on that belief, perceived to have begun a quarter of a century earlier by Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1831-1833), was joined four months later —and, briefly, to wider effect—from quite another angle by the publication of Essays and Reviews, six of whose seven authors were clergymen. The Wilberforce – Huxley debate in Oxford (1861), finally, which may have gained piquancy in the retelling, completes the best-known landmarks of the struggle between science and belief that shaped Victorian Oxford when Hopkins entered it in 1863 and that played itself out over the rest of his lifetime, and beyond.

2The paucity of Hopkins’s references to Darwinism and his serenity in those few references appear to give the lie to the notion, grown general by repetition, that Darwin’s findings merely swept away all before them. Now, the best historians are wary of assuming that what appears to be earth-shaking and epochally decisive to us must have appeared in the same light to contemporaries of the events. But in the present instance, surely, we have abundant contemporary evidence that the thinking public was profoundly shaken by discoveries in the natural sciences. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology reduced to nonsense the literal time-frame of the Bible. “If only the geologists would leave me alone, I could do very well,” John Ruskin wrote plaintively to Henry Acland; “but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses” (24 May 1851, 115). Matthew Arnold was so satisfied with his response to the advances of science on belief in The Hundred Greatest Men that he repeated it in “The Study of Poetry”:

There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, and now the fact is failing it (1).

3And there is surely a note of desperation in Charles Kingsley’s letter to F. D. Maurice as early as 1863: “The state of the scientific mind is most curious; Darwin is conquering everywhere, by the mere force of truth and fact” (171, emphasis added).

4The discrepancy between the Darwinian challenge to belief and Hopkins’s placidity in the face of it has intrigued others. Walter Ong drew attention to it first in an article published in 1966 in which he argues that Hopkins was “more at home in history and in an evolutionary cosmos than most other modern or near-modern poets” (“Evolution”, 15). The reason for this “at-homeness,” Ong proposes, is his “Catholic dogmatic background [, which] fitted him for an evolutionary time-sense.” This “time-sense” accompanies a correct understanding of the dependence of grace on the Incarnation, of the “scandal” of the entrance of the timeless into human or “cosmic” time. This becomes a theme in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (sts. 6 and 7) that is “assimilable to evolutionary sense of time, an ‘open-end,’ developmental structuring of events”—a theme employed in the poem “more explicitly and downrightly than [in] any other poem of comparable size or importance which [Ong] know[s] of since Darwin” (18). But whatever the merits of this argument, its terms are surely too narrow and too tangential to the physical science underlying Darwinism to clarify the oddity of Hopkins’s position. Ong allows, moreover, that “evolutionary thinking caused no little consternation in Catholic […] circles” (15) that would have shared Hopkins’s “Catholic dogmatic background.”

5Tom Zaniello, with his groundbreaking Hopkins in the Age of Darwin (1988) is the first, and remains the only, scholar to try to shape the issue at book length. But Darwinism itself does not much figure in it; and while this study is invaluable for the light it throws on the science and scientists in Hopkins’s environment, it leaves the present question unanswered, though all the more tantalizing. Yet it is not easy to understand in what sense Hopkins might have been “a key witness to the Age of Darwin” (2).

  • 1  Moreover, as will be seen below, “absolute evolution” went farther even than Darwin in excluding G (...)

6Jude Nixon devotes a long chapter of his Gerard Manley Hopkins and His Contemporaries (1994) to “Hopkins and Darwinism.” Aside from its many merits, it perpetuates a confusion between “evolution” or “evolutionism” and “Darwinism.” While the latter may be folded into the former in most of its expressions, the reverse is not true; for the processes described by Darwin were entirely immanent, and natural selection—the single principle proposed in On the Origin of Species—entailed not transcendence but rather tychism.1 It was on this point that St George Mivart’s criticism hinged in On the Genesis of Species.

7Walter Ong returned to the subject of his earlier essay in Hopkins, the Self, and God (1986), developing his thesis considerably and attributing Hopkins’s attitude towards Darwinism to his acceptance of a pre-modern cosmological picture. I would like to quote Ong at some length:

  • 2  T. Zaniello makes no mention of W. Ong; J. Nixon dismisses his analysis (Gerard Manley Hopkins and (...)

[Hopkins] still represents the Catholic tradition generally of his day, and to a great extent, even of the present. He works with no urgent, modern, comprehensive cosmological vision. For […] since the collapse of the old Aristotelian cosmology, Catholic theology and indeed the entire Catholic ethos had never got the newly emerging cosmos fully into theological focus. […] St George Jackson Mivart and a few others were working for a more mature Catholic cosmology, but, in effect, Hopkins would have had to build one pretty much from scratch. The new physics had engendered no new Catholic metaphysics. The Catholic theology of the past four or five centuries has been […] an “acosmic theology,” with no integral relationship to the fifteen-billion-year-old evolving universe that we now know, to the thirty-thousand-year or longer history of Homo sapiens, or to the countless hundreds of thousands of years, that, for all we know, lie ahead. Individual Catholics by the hundreds of thousands or millions are acutely aware of what modern science had shown the real universe to be and are aware that their faith teaches that God created the actual universe that is, not the construct imagined by Aristotle or even the one imaginatively pictured in Genesis (157-8).2

8Now Ong allows that Hopkins showed no quaint antiquarianism in these matters; that, on the contrary, he was interested in “interpreting the Church’s teaching in the light of what we know about the physical universe”; and that his highly-developed powers of empirical observation were of a piece with those that were yielding the very scientific discoveries that were forming a modern cosmology (159). But he concludes that Hopkins’s home was not the outer world but in the inner one, that of the “interior self.” And we must conclude from this argument that Hopkins was unconsciously split—the interior self ultimately cut off from the exterior world as it was coming to present itself—in spite of his lively interest in and talent for grasping this exterior world in its detail.

9This may appear to be a peculiar conclusion in the light of what we know of Hopkins’s intellectual rigor and in the light of his preoccupation with the “stem of stress” that, like a spark across a gap, transmitted a charge from outward being to inward. Of course, a conclusion may be no less right for being peculiar. But it may turn out that the collapse of the mental world of the Aristotelian-scholastic cosmology that Ong locates four or five hundred years ago (with Copernicus and Galileo, presumably) took the form less of a single catastrophe than of a gathering tidal wave or a tsunami.


  • 3  It is therefore misleading to conflate Newman’s thinking with Darwinism. See, e.g., J. Nixon, op. (...)

10Evolutionary thinking, on the other hand—whether in its stadial form or as expressed in organic metaphors—had since the mid-18th century been deepening and spreading in influence. Turgot’s «Tableau philosophiquedesprogrès successifs de l’esprit humain» (1750) offers a convenient and brilliant point of reference. Significantly, Turgot distinguishes at the outset and radically between the sphere of human history and that of nature, the latter being confined to cyclical repetition whereas the former evolved, though advances and reversals, towards greater perfection. Kant’s cosmology, on the other hand, was indeed developmental, but he recognizes the danger of extending such a model to the physical development of the human being. He writes in the Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (1755) that there is no account of organic development that would correspond to his own account of the development of the solar system from a primordial gaseous state (Kant 6: “Vorrede,” 2.8). Indeed, in “Bestimmung des Begriffs einer Menschenrasse” (1785) he “recoils” in horror from the idea that one species might have developed from another (608). In the realm of the organic, Kant’s view remains teleological; species are fixed; an impenetrable wall stands between the mechanical universe and the biological (Kant 2: Urteilskraft §75). Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life (1794-6) anticipated Lamarckian evolutionism. Hegel shifted philosophical discourse from being to becoming and traced the phenomenology of spirit as a self unfolding according to a purely immanent principle. Not only was there no lack of evolutionary thinking before Darwin but it would be fair to say that it was penetrating into every area of reflection, and even into theology. Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) is perfectly in keeping with its time.3

11This thumbnail sketch is not meant to be complete. But it is fair to say that, as a general idea, evolution was in the air of the 19th century well before Darwinism. Yet it occupied a universe in which teleology was self-evident, not chance, and in which the immanent was grounded in the transcendent and not independent of it. These are the two principles on which the intellectual battle over Darwinism was fought. That of literalism in biblical interpretation—strong in both Protestant and Catholic versions—left both sides little or no room for maneuver.


12Hopkins was not, of course, unaware of Darwin, of Darwinism, or of the debates surrounding them. His father, Manley Hopkins, was a fossil collector and had contributed an article to Once a Week on the so-called Essex elephants, the fossilized remains of a mammoth discovered in south-east England. At various times of Hopkins’s life he kept up with the intellectual organs of his day, both religious and secular: Jude Nixon lists Fraser’s, The Nineteenth Century, The Athenaeum, Cornhill, and the Contemporary Review (112); to these we must of course add The Month and the Dublin Review, as well as Nature (which published three of his letters), the Quarterly Review, The Academy (which reported on John Tyndall’s incendiary pro-Darwinian address before the British Association in 1874). To this last we must also return. Yet Hopkins hardly notices Darwin or Darwinism in all the volumes of reflections, correspondence, and essays that have come down to us; and when he does, it is with what very much appears to be Olympian unconcern.

13What are the Hopkinsian texts before us? In respect of Darwin and Darwinism, they are principally three and appear in his correspondence with his mother and with Robert Bridges.

14The earliest is a postscript to a letter to his mother from St Beuno’s, Wales, where he was to begin a three-year course of study in theology. It is dated 20-21 September 1874.

I see the Academy no more but among the last things I read in it was Tyndall’s address. I thought it interesting and eloquent, though it made me ‘most mad’. It is not only that he looks back to an obscure origin, he looks forward with the same content to an obscure future—to be lost ‘in the infinite azure of the past’ (fine phrase by the by). I do not think, do you know, that Darwinism implies necessarily that man is descended from any ape or ascidian or maggot or what not but only from the common ancestor of apes, the common ancestor or ascidians, the common ancestor of maggots, and so on: these common ancestors, if lower animals, need not have been repulsive animals. What Darwin himself says about this I do not know. You should read St. George Mivart’s Genesis of the Species: he is an Evolutionist though he combats downright Darwinism and is very orthodox. To return to Tyndall—I notice that he has no sense of relative weights of authority: he quotes Draper, Whewell and other respectable authorities for or against Aristotle, Bacon, etc. as if it were just the same thing and you were keeping at the same level—the Lord Chief Justice rules this way, his parlourmaid however says it should be the other, and so on. However Tyndall was kind to Edward [Bond] and me at the foot of the Matterhorn. I fear he must be called an atheist but he is not a shameless one: I wish he might come round [FL, 127-8, emphasis added].

15The second is in a letter to Bridges from Stonyhurst College, where he was teaching classics; it is dated 4 – 5 January 1883. (He had by this time passed his exams in theology at St Beuno’s but had not done well enough in dogmatic theology to be admitted to further studies. It will be worth noting that the “star of Balliol,” as Hopkins was called in legend if not in fact, did not shine in the firmament of dogmatic theology. He had been ordained to the priesthood in 1877). In the letter he has been discussing his sonnet to Henry Purcell.

Did you see Vernon Lee’s [i.e., Violet Paget’s] paper in the December Contemp.? I don’t like it. She professes herself a disciple of a Mr. Edmund Gurney, who by way of reaction against the gush of programmes (‘sturdy old tone-poet’—’inimitable drollery of the semi demi-quavers in the dominant minor’ and so on) says that we enjoy music because our apish ancestors serenaded their Juliet-apes of the period in rudimentary recitatives and our emotions are the survival—that sexual business will in short be found by roking the pot. This is to swing from pap to poison. Would that I had my materials ready to talk sense [LB, 171-2].

16Lee’s paper, entitled “Impersonality and Evolution in Music,” argues that that form in music which moves us “is not invented by any particular man, but is evolved […]” (LB, 171 n.2). That such an argument should have been “poison” to the poet of “Henry Purcell” needs no immediate explanation.

17Finally, on a walking tour of Scotland less than a year before his death, he writes to Bridges from Fort William on 18-19 August 1888:

I agree with you about cricket and Darwinism and that ‘everything is Darwinism’. But especially a ship. However the honeycomb is not quite so plain a matter as you think. The learned, I believe, are divided on the question whether the shape of the cell is really only to be called a matter of mechanics. For observe: The cell can only be symmetrical, with a true hexagonal section and so on, by the bees being stationed at equal distances, working equally, and so on; in fact, there is a considerable table of caetera paria. But this implies something more than mechanical to begin with. Otherwise the hexagonal etc. cell wd. be the type tended to only and seldom or never arrived at; the comb wd. be like the irregular figures of bubbles in the froth of beer or in soapsuds. Wild bees do, I believe, build something like that. But grant in the honey bee some principle of symmetry and you have passed beyond mechanical necessity; and it is not clear that there may not be some special instinct determined to that shape of cell after all and which has at the present stage of the bee’s condition, nothing to do with mechanics, but is like the specific songs of cuckoo and thrush. Now to bed or rather to pack. I will therefore conclude, though there must have been more to say [LB, 28].

  • 4  His undergraduate encounters with Darwinism are too glancing and slight to form the basis of concl (...)

18More to say there certainly was; but either Hopkins did not live to say it or the letters in which he did so are missing. Yet from what he has said here it seems safe to assume that his position would not fundamentally have changed. For he is looking for an innate principle of order, a higher law that would be prior to modifications owing to natural selection, which he identifies with “mechanism.” The term is important because it draws his argument into a field of thought or discourse familiar to him not only from the time of his undergraduate essays but from the arguments over Darwinism going on around him.4 Darwin, of course, saw no need of a priori principles because the hexagonal cell-wall pattern was the most efficient geometry for storing honey in the comb.

19There are other passages in Hopkins’s writings that bear on evolutionary thinking; but one must take care to distinguish this from Darwinism proper, for reasons which will become clear. What do we learn from these passages? First, I think that despite the heartfelt cries of lamentation by a Ruskin, an Arnold, a Kingsley—and countless others of the period—Hopkins seems to be interested rather than concerned, able to leaven seriousness with humor. Second, he thinks that he would likely be able to mitigate, if not resolve, the inconveniences and even viciousness of Darwinism, if circumstances permitted. Third, that we have nothing to fear from the descent of man from lower species. That is, the literalist interpretation of the Bible that formed the bedrock of Protestant hermeneutics as well as a powerful current in 19th-century Catholic hermeneutics was no obstacle. Instead, fourth, it ought to be possible to harmonize Darwinism and orthodox Catholic belief by due attention to (a) a priori principles and (b) a just consideration of philosophical authority. It is the third and fourth of these conclusions that I would like to dwell on here.


20It is clear that, in Arnold’s resounding diagnosis, those forms of belief that had lashed themselves to the literal truth of the Bible—the biblical account of creation, for example—were increasingly left defenseless against conquest by what Kingsley called “the mere force of truth and fact.” Should one not then expect more openness to Darwin among Catholic authorities? Does Hopkins’s apparent serenity in the teeth of all-conquering truth and fact reflect the latitude underpinned by deeper and more varied hermeneutic tradition?

21If one looks at the trajectory of Darwinism in Catholic Europe—I take France and Italy as examples—a picture not essentially dissimilar to that in the English-speaking world emerges. The greater power of the Church in these countries did lead to more forced retractions, as might be expected. But while it is tempting to draw strong conclusions from this fact and to assume a clear position, if not indeed a teaching, on Darwinism by the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 19th century—and indeed well into the 20th—it would be a mistake to do so.

  • 5  J. Zahm was interested in science and participated administratively in its advancement at the Univ (...)
  • 6  The Holy Office could recommend a book for prohibition by the Congregation of the Index and the la (...)
  • 7  This was Roma e l’Italia e la realtà delle cose (1889), a pamphlet proposing a solution to the pro (...)

22The absence of any reference to Darwin or Darwinism in official documents of the Catholic Church in the 19th century is striking—whether by the Popes or by the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition, as it was then still called (hereinafter, the Holy Office). None of Darwin’s works was placed on the Index librorumprohiborum. And yet semi-official Catholic organs thundered; some bishops fulminated, while others wrote in defense of Darwinism in an only slightly edulcorated form. Little wonder that “orthodox” Catholics such as St George Mivart in England, John Zahm in the United States, Dalmace Leroy in France, and Rafaello Caverni and Bishop Geremia Bonomelli in Italy felt free to publish works on evolution that drew on Darwin’s studies. (All but Mivart were priests; Mivart alone was a trained professional scientist5). Of the works on evolution by these eminent writers, however, only Caverni’s De’ Nuovi Studi della Philosophia: Discorsi a un Giovane Studente (1877) was placed on the Index. But because the Congregation of the Index held their deliberations in secret and never published the reasons for their condemnations, no one could tell why the book had been prohibited. Certainly, the title offered no clue. What is more, as the Congregation of the Index worked in virtually complete independence of the Holy Office,6 which alone decided doctrinal questions, it might have been condemned for reasons having nothing to do with doctrine. In the event, it had to be condemned for reasons having nothing to do with doctrine, for the simple reason that, so far as Darwinism or even evolutionism was concerned, there was no doctrine. Bishop Bonomelli’s retraction of Seguiamo la ragione (1898)—which has been cited for over a century as having been prompted by the Holy Office—was in fact a tactical one. He already had one book on the Index that had nothing to do with evolutionism7 and was keen to forestall a second (Artigas, 203, 123, 283).

23It is possible for the first time to see clearly into the Vatican’s responses to Darwinism and evolutionism because in 1998 the archives of the Holy Office were opened. Three scholars—Mariano Artigas, Thomas A. Glick, and Rafael A. Martínez—labored through them, and in 2006 published Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902. It is indispensable reading and has nourished the present essay.

24In short, during Hopkins’s lifetime and well after, the Catholic Church had no doctrine on Darwinism or evolutionism. The Congregation of the Index did not depend on the Holy Office and only sometimes consulted it. In addition, when the Congregation of the Index decided that a work was condemnable, its first motion was to procure a retraction from its author. But this retraction appeared in no official organ and was easily overlooked by readers. Once an author published a retraction and agreed not to re-publish the work, his only obligation was to attempt to withdraw unsold copies from circulation. Such efforts, of course, met with mediocre success; many copies remained in circulation and—to all appearances—unscathed by controversy. What is more, the Congregation of the Index could decide not to publish its condemnation, in which case even fewer readers could know that it caused offense of some kind. Just what that offense was could usually not be determined because the reasons for it were secret...

25Why was the Vatican so loath to express itself doctrinally on these issues? Before the opening of the archives of the Holy Office it was natural to suspect that Galileo cast a long shadow and that no authority was eager to engage again in that kind of debate. After examining these archives, the authors of Negotiating Darwin find even stronger reasons to affirm this suspicion. The unusually convoluted language of the encyclical Providentissimus Deus (Leo XIII, 1893) may be an index of this discomfort.

26It is exceedingly difficult to summarize this crucial document. What it gives with one hand it takes away with the other. But it is possible to conclude from it that while God is the author of Scripture, he employed human authors as his instruments. These human instruments are as fully the authors of the book as if they had written it independently. But since they have God as their co-author, so to speak, one must reject apriori any interpretation that would make Holy Scripture affirm what is false. Hence, if something is affirmed in a passage of the Bible that one day is discovered to be false, we are obliged to conclude that we have interpreted the Bible wrongly (¶ 21 and 23). Now, since no sacred writer has ever erred (¶ 20), God taught nothing about the natural sciences to men by way of the sacred authors. Indeed, “[t]here can never [...] be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines […]” (¶ 18).

27In buttressing its arguments on authority, the encyclical most frequently cites St Augustine and, on the points on which they agree, St Thomas Aquinas. In this there is nothing surprising. But the same passages tended to be cited by those Catholic authors on evolution whose writings drew the attention of the Congregation of the Index. These bear on the figurative interpretation of Scripture and on God’s creation not of material forms but of seminal principles (in Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram) or potentialities (in the Summa, prima pars, qu. 67, art. 4, ad 3).

28In other words, in navigating between biblical literalism and radical materialism, the Providentissmus Deus draws on some of the same arguments as did 19th-century authors—some of them condemned—on evolution and Darwinism.

29In 1909, the Catholic University of Louvain accepted the invitation of Cambridge University to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the fiftieth of the publication of On the Origin of Species. That is, the most widely-respected learned body in the Catholic world paid public homage to the man identified with the theory of evolution. The delegation was led by a Belgian theologian and geologist, Henry de Dorlodot, a man nearly Hopkins’s contemporary, who during the First World War delivered a series of lectures subsequently published under the title Le Darwinisme au point de vue de l’orthodoxie catholique. In them he summarizes the fundamental teaching of Darwin: first, that the primary origin of living beings is the result of special influence on the part of the Creator, who infused life into one or a few elementary organisms; and second, that by the evolution of these organisms over the ages arose all the organic species that exist or have existed.

30To Darwinism Dodorlot opposes two other possible accounts of the origins of life in its diversity: first, that of absolute evolution and second, that of creationism. Absolute evolution denies special divine intervention even in the origin of life, which it ascribes to a process of evolution from inorganic matter. Darwin had taken care not to assert absolute evolution; indeed, there was at the time no scientific basis for such an assertion. Creationism, of course, stipulates divine intervention at the origin of each species, which is thenceforth fixed.

31All three—Darwinism, absolute evolution, and creationism—are examined from the point of view of positive theology (based on the sources of Christian doctrine: the Bible and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church) and of speculative theology (based on logical deductions from positive theology as well as on, for example, knowledge of nature). Four conclusions follow from these investigations:

1. We cannot find in Holy Scripture, interpreted according to the rules of Catholic exegesis, any convincing argument against the theory of natural evolution—even that of absolute evolution.
2. The teaching of the Fathers of the Church is indeed favorable to absolute evolution.
3. The application of principles of Catholic theology […] to the concrete data of the sciences of observation elevates into an absolute certainty the simple naturalist who holds a very radical system of transformism. Such application leads us, moreover, to accept, at least as eminently probable, the theory which derives all living beings from one or a few simple types of organisms, which is Darwin’s own view […].
4. The Catholic theory concerning the natural activity of secondary causes is capable of explaining a natural transformist evolution as Darwin understood it, and entitles us to reject as entirely superfluous the additional special interventions postulated by those who hold the fixity of species or by the moderate Creationists (5-6).

  • 8  Henry deDorlodot’s MS for a volume supplementing his lectures in which he took up the descent of m (...)

As usual, traditionalists in Rome reacted to censure Dorlodot. But in contrast to the efforts to discipline Leroy, Caverni, Boromelli, and Zahm, these failed. Dorlodot refused to recant or to withdraw his publication, agreeing only not to publish further on this subject.8

32The arguments for and against evolution and Darwinism in the Catholic Church just before, during, and just after Hopkins’s encounter with these issues were broad enough to allow considerable latitude to Catholics in their private responses. The non-existence of an official teaching led to confusion and inconsistency in the vetting of public responses by the Congregation of the Index and to extreme reticence on the part of the Holy Office. Finally, the legacy of certain Church Fathers and Doctors—most notably St Augustine but also St Gregory of Nyssa, for example—and St Thomas Aquinas, where he agreed with Augustine—authorized theories even more radical than the one Darwin proposed. The Catholic Church during Hopkins’s lifetime therefore comprised, in an unstable tension, both biblical literalism and positions on evolution more radical than Darwin’s.


33The point at issue between Darwinism in the form in which Darwin framed it and evolutionism in its more acceptable formulations for non-literalist Catholic thinkers lies in the role of chance or, to put it in another way, in the absence of teleology in natural processes. Natural selection obeyed no law other than that of survival; it required no transcendental intervention at any stage, although Darwin did not propose a transition from inorganic to organic matter by immanent processes, and did not do so for want of empirical evidence. For the evolution of organic matter—the living species—on the other hand, the laws of matter were sufficient. It was this that made Hopkins “most mad” after reading Tyndall’s address. As opposed to the central tradition of Catholic philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas—to which he adds Goethe in contrast to Newton, Tyndall creates a tradition beginning with Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, Archimedes, Euclid, Hipparchus, Ptolemy, passing through the Middle Ages in the works of Arab men of science and on to Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes in his experimental, non-idealistic works, Newton, Boyle, Hume and so on, culminating of course in Darwin. This catalogue was no doubt educated showmanship. More fundamental is the manner of thinking that Tyndall hopes to evoke by his new intellectual galaxy. And here we arrive at the point at which Hopkins is on one side of an epistemic divide.

34The tradition of Catholic hermeneutics includes ancient adumbrations of 19th-century evolutionism and even of Darwinism in their most radical expressions—a radicalism that Darwin himself did not see fit to advance. In 19th-century Catholic writers on evolution one finds references to the same passages in Augustine and Aquinas that authorize figurative interpretations of biblical passages, in particular when reason makes it necessary, the same passages that Leo XIII refers to in Providentissimus Deus: if there should be disagreement between the theologian and the scientist, “Saint Augustine warns us ‘not to make rash assertions or to assert what is not known as known.’ […] here is the rule also laid down by Saint Augustine, for the theologian: ‘Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures’ ” (¶ 18).

35Both Catholic writers on evolutionism and Darwinism and Pope Leo XIII cite Aquinas’s agreement with Augustine on the matter of God’s creation of potential rather than actual beings. In De Genesi ad litteram Augustine maintains that God created living things only in their causes. Indeed, original matter contained all living beings as a seed contains a plant.

36St Gregory of Nyssa is another frequently cited authority. When St. Basil had preached that the six days named in Genesis were literally six days, his sophisticated audience in Asia Minor were amazed by the primitiveness of the idea and complained to Gregory. By a marvellous irony Gregory saw himself obliged to argue that Basil’s words had to be interpreted and not taken literally! Elsewhere (in Apologetichos pros Petron tou adelphou peri tes Hexameron) Gregory argued that all things existed in potentiality from the first instant of creation. Creatures evolved over time by virtue of these potentialities. In context it is clear that Gregory holds to a theory of absolute evolutionism from inorganic matter without any intervention by God after the first instant. Catholic theology, that is, contained authoritative justification for a kind of evolutionism that was in some respects more radical than that which Darwin was willing to assert in On the Origin of Species!

37The extent to which Hopkins was aware of these things in detail need not concern us; what matters is that they were in wide circulation among Catholic writers on evolutionism and Darwinism. Only the principle of teleology (and hence of any divine intervention in organic processes) could not be harmonized with Darwinism.

38Finally, the era of reasoning from first Aristotelian-Thomistic principles, which we observe everywhere in Hopkins’s writings, and from authority, which he alludes to in his critique of Tyndall—at the very least in questions about the natural world—was drawing to a close. It was this era that Hopkins still inhabited.

  • 9  See the report on Raffaello Caverni for the Congregation of the Index by Tommaso Maria Zigliara; a (...)

39The mental world that grew out of and harmonized with the ancient cosmology which disappeared four or five hundred years ago survived the collapse of geocentrism, survived it indeed into the early 20th century in the realm of Catholic thought. In that context it was perfectly plausible to refute Darwin by appealing to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.9 Hopkins lived in the dying light of that theological and intellectual tradition which was nevertheless still vigorous enough to assert itself against a final adversary. It is not at all clear to me that Mivart was attempting, as Ong claims, to construct a “more mature Catholic cosmology.” On the contrary, he and others like him in Europe and America—like Rafaello Caverni, Antonio Fogazzaro, and Bishop Bonomelli in Italy, Dalmace Leroy and Ambroise Gardeil in France, St George Mivart in England, and John Zahm in the United States—were attempting to harmonize Darwinism with the minimal requirements of the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis.

40Hopkins’s moment was probably the last in which it was possible to hold the two positions in a hopeful—if unstable—union. It may have been undergraduate superciliousness that led him to write to Baillie in 1865: “I am amused to find how very far the advancement of thought or science is from being on every side an encroachment on Christianity. I think I see them retiring from old positions on important points” (FL, 227). But Hopkins rarely spoke (or wrote) unthinkingly. And it seems to me rather the case that he later pursued this line of reasoning with the same consistency as he did all his other convictions. His serenity in the question of Darwinian evolution had its roots in the latitude of Catholic exegesis and in the reluctance of the Church to pronounce authoritatively on the subject.

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Arnold Matthew, “The Study of Poetry”, Essays in Criticism,Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1896.

Artigas Mariano, Thomas F. Glick & Raphael A. Martínez, Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

Cook E. T. & Alexander Wedderburn (eds.), The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XXVI: The Letters of John Ruskin 1827-1869, vol. I. London: George Allen, 1909.

Dorlodot Henry de, Le Darwinisme au point de vue de l’orthodoxie catholique,Bruxelles, Paris: Vromant & Co.1921, Tr. as Darwinism and Catholic Thought, London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1922.

------, L’Origine de l’homme: le darwinisme au point de vue de l’orthodoxie catholique,Marie-Claire Groessens-Van Dyck & Dominique Lambert,Coll. Cosmologiques,Wavre (Belgium): Mardaga, 2009.

Hopkins Gerard Manley, The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins,Vol. IV, Lesley Higgins (ed.), Oxford: OUP, 2006.

------, Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins,Claude Colleer Abbott (ed.), 2nd ed., London: OUP, 1956.

------, The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Humphry House & Graham Storey (eds.), London: OUP, 1959.

------, The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, Claude Colleer Abbott (ed.), 2nd (rev.) impression, London: OUP, 1955.

Kant Immanuel, Immanuel Kants sämtliche Werke in sechs Bänden,Vols. 2 and 6, Leipzig: Inselverlag, 1928.

Kingsley Charles, His Letters and Memories of His Life, Edited by His Wife,Vol. II, New York: Henry King and Co., 1877.

Nixon Jude, Gerard Manley Hopkins and His Contemporaries: Lidden, Newman, Darwin, and Pater, New York: Garland, 1994.

Ong Walter J., S. J., “Evolution, Myth, and Poetic Vision,” Comparative Literature Studies, 3 (1966), 1-20.

------, Hopkins, the Self, and God,Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986.

Providentissimus Deus, <>.

ZANIELLO Tom, Hopkins in the Age of Darwin, Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988.

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1  Moreover, as will be seen below, “absolute evolution” went farther even than Darwin in excluding God from organic process.

2  T. Zaniello makes no mention of W. Ong; J. Nixon dismisses his analysis (Gerard Manley Hopkins and His Contemporaries: Liddon, Newman, Darwin, and Pater, New York: Garland,1994, 122-3).

3  It is therefore misleading to conflate Newman’s thinking with Darwinism. See, e.g., J. Nixon, op. cit., 117.

4  His undergraduate encounters with Darwinism are too glancing and slight to form the basis of conclusions. In his notes on Plato’s philosophy, taken from Robert Williams’s lecture (D. VIII), he records the suggestion: “Try mod[ern] difficulty of origin of species.  It is very much the same as Plato’s.  It is said it wd. be solved if we cd. find or construct types for each species, but what wd. distinguish these types.  What wd. prevent them from shading off into one another just as the concrete species do?” (Collected Works IV, 238-9). In his essay on “The Probable Future of Metaphysics” (D. X), he argues for fixed points (species) along a chromatic scale and for the peculiar intelligibility of certain forms that have “in some sense or other an absolute existence” (Journals and Papers,120).

5  J. Zahm was interested in science and participated administratively in its advancement at the University of Notre Dame.

6  The Holy Office could recommend a book for prohibition by the Congregation of the Index and the latter could refer questions to the former; but as a rule they worked secretly and separately. They were merged only in 1917.

7  This was Roma e l’Italia e la realtà delle cose (1889), a pamphlet proposing a solution to the problem of relations between the young Italian state and the Vatican, including the former papal states.  See Artigas et al., op. cit., 203-4.

8  Henry deDorlodot’s MS for a volume supplementing his lectures in which he took up the descent of man was published in 2009 as L’Origine de l’homme: le darwinisme au point de vue de l’orthodoxie catholique.

9  See the report on Raffaello Caverni for the Congregation of the Index by Tommaso Maria Zigliara; and those on Dalmace Leroy and John Zahm by Cardinal Enrico Buonpensieri (Artigas et al., op. cit., 40, 92-3, 146-8).

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Cary H. Plotkin, « Le Darwin de Hopkins: déchiffrage contextuel », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, 476-489.

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Cary H. Plotkin, « Le Darwin de Hopkins: déchiffrage contextuel », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, mis en ligne le 25 mai 2009, consulté le 28 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Cary H. Plotkin

Dr., (New York, USA)
Cary Plotkin is the author of The Tenth Muse: Victorian Philology and the Genesis of the Poetic Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1989) and the editor of Soundings: Hopkins Studies in Transition (2008). He teaches in the Department of English at Barnard College, Columbia University (New York).

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