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Poèmes et poètes

“Nothing is so beautiful”: Hopkins’s Spring

« Rien n’est aussi beau » : Hopkins et le printemps
Catherine Phillips
p. 109-119


Cet article aborde les raisons pour lesquelles Gerard Manley Hopkins aimait le printemps. Celles-ci allaient de simples réconforts physiques à des associations profondément religieuses, tout particulièrement avec la Vierge Marie. Les poèmes de Hopkins « Rosa Mystica », « The May Magnificat » et « The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe » sont étudiés dans un contexte de dévotion mariale associée au mois de mai. L’article décrit également le développement ignatien de Hopkins et les conditions spécifiques de l’écriture des poèmes.

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  • 1  Humphry House (ed.),completed by Graham Storey, The Journals and Notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkin (...)

1The season that Gerard Manley Hopkins loved above all others was spring. If one looks through his journals one finds mention of the first primroses as early as 11th February1 and, after he had moved to St Mary’s Hall in Lancashire, of the sound of cuckoos

Sometimes I hear the cuckoo with wonderful clear and plump and fluty notes: it is when the hollow of a rising ground conceives them and palms them up and throws them out, like blowing into a big humming ewer—for instance under Saddle Hill one beautiful day and another time from Hodder wood when we walked on the other side of the river (Journals, 232, June 16 1873).

2Nearby in Hodder Wood he also recalled seeing bluebells,

all hanging their heads one way. I caught as well as I could while my companions talked the Greek rightness of their beauty, the lovely/ what people call/ ‘gracious’ bidding one to another or all one way, the level or stage or shire of colour they make hanging in the air a foot above the grass, and a notable glare the eye may abstract and sever from the blue colour/ of light beating up from so many glassy heads, which like water is good to float their deeper instress in upon the mind (Journals, 231, May 11 1873).

  • 2 Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Claude Colleer Abbott (ed.),2nd edition enlarged and revi (...)

3Given that some of the residences that Hopkins lived in were poorly heated and that “dark” is not a positive term in his vocabulary, it is unsurprising that he should welcome the end of winter.  He wrote to his friend William Mowbray Baillie while he was at St Mary’s Hall, asking him to pardon the poor script because he had been writing with “the worst of steel pens” and “a dreadfully cold hand”.2 But his response was not just the longing for warmth, sun-filled days and long, lighted evenings; spring appealed to him in other ways; for example, through its colours. He writes in the “Wreck of the Deutschland” of

  • 3 The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman H. MacKenzie (ed.),Oxford English Texts Series, (...)

… how to the heart’s cheering
The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky Way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing? (st.26).3

4The description works as a metaphor for the exhilaration of being rescued from winter, the peeling back of the grey clouds to reveal the brighter blue skies of May. He applauds the revelation of beauty both close to and far beyond man’s reach in the heavens by day and night. The description of the Milky Way as “moth-soft” is appreciative of texture informed by knowledge of the fragility of moths’ wings. He was protective towards vulnerable creatures and things. The eldest of a family of eight, the youngest of whom was sixteen years his junior, he admired the beauty of children, repeatedly urging that it be dedicated to God, as in “Morning, Midday, and Evening Sacrifice”, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”, “The Handsome Heart”, “The Bugler’s First Communion”. In the poem entitled “Spring” (1877), where he refers to the “innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy” that are particularly Christ’s concern, he is attentive to the season as a time of general growth and rebirth. Hopkins was a child of the Romantic period, not of 18th-century Italianate formal perfection and “Spring” celebrates the luxuriance of weeds, the natural plants that lined the paths and roadsides he loved to ramble along. He also saw closer connections between this natural world and Eden than in man’s manipulating of plant breeds (OET, 371). He was aware of the latter; he noted in his journal, for example, the names of varieties of cultivated roses, but he wanted in nature to touch things that connected back to Christ. In “Spring”, he admires the curved shapes of the long, healthy stems with their fresh, green and perfect leaves. The curved shape may well also have been in his mind for the lambs – he noted in his Journal in 1871, “[t]he young lambs […] toss and toss: it is as if it were the earth that flung them, not themselves. [...] Sometimes they rest a little space on the hind legs and the forefeet drop curling in on the breast, not so liquidly as we see it in the limbs of foals though” (Journals, 206). In “Spring”, this becomes: “the racing lambs too have fair their fling”. He mentions the thrush’s eggs of blue with a turquoise tinge as “little low heavens” (OET, 371), not only because the bird tends to build its nests low in the hedges but perhaps also because he noticed this sort of colour in the sky close to the horizon. Hopkins comments on the thrush’s particularly clear and resonant call – “Thrush/ Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring/ The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing” – perhaps because the bird has a very wide repertoire and generally repeats a motif once before moving to a new call, so that “echoing timber” is particularly appropriate, evoking both the repetition of the songs and the way in which sound reverberates through leafless glades.

  • 4  Seamus Heaney, The Fire I’ the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Chattert (...)

5The sonnet has been criticised, by Seamus Heaney for example,4 as breaking into two parts – an octave’s description of spring followed by a sestet applying the imagery to theological interpretation. However, Hopkins may have seen these as much more unified. For him spring was full of special divine significance. He saw Christ in the way in which bluebells developed; he spoke of his vocation as being “more than violets knee-deep” (Further Letters, 235) and some of his most vivid descriptions of spring occur in his poems to Mary, in which he explains the connections between her and May.

6It is an interesting fact that the majority of the religious flower names in Britain refer to the Virgin Mary, to her motherhood and daily life. This is in contrast with the flower symbolism of France, Germany, Spain and Latin America where there are more allusions to Christ’s passion and resurrection and Mary’s sorrowful and glorious mysteries. The English names are in keeping with English Marian poetry of the Middle and late Middle Ages praising Mary’s “maidenly spirituality and Divine Maternity”, visualising her in a natural, European context, as, for example, in the 15th-century English carol:

  • 5  Marina Warner, Alone of All her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, London: Weidenfeld (...)

He came all so stille
There his mother was
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the grass.5

  • 6 Ibid., 153.

7Use of the term “Our Lady” for the Virgin Mary had become popular in the 12th and 13th centuries6and there are hundreds of British plants with common names that refer to her in this way, among them:

Cow Parsley - Lady’s Lace
Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell) - Lady’s Thimble
Convolvulus arvensis  (Binweed) - Lady’s Smock or Lady’s Sunshade    
Foxglove - Lady’s Fingers or Lady’s Gloves or Lady’s Slipper    
Fumitory - Lady’s Lockets  
Solomon’s Seal - Lady’s Seal
Meadow Buttercup - Lady’s Slipper      
Pyrus Pear variety - Lady Pear  

  • 7 Ibid., 282.

8The linking of Mary to nature is ancient. The name of the month, May, derives from Maia, the Greek nymph who was the mother of Hermes by Zeus. Maia and her sisters were transformed into the seven stars of the Pleiades, a constellation that appears in the northern sky in May as a harbinger of summer. The Romans considered Maia, like Diana, a patroness of fresh-water springs and associated her with Bona Dea, the earth goddess of plenty and with Flora, the goddess of the harvest whose symbol was the hawthorn, known as may blossom, and who was celebrated between 23rd April and 3rd May. Across Medieval Europe there were on May Day (May 1st) fertility festivities crowning a Queen of the May. 7 According to Marina Warner, it was the Society of Jesus that did much to redirect May festivals towards the Virgin Mary. Associating Mary with May became more popular in European countries in the 18th century and, in the 19th, devotion to Mary, backed by the Vatican, increased markedly. There were a number of Marian apparitions in Europe leading to the establishment of pilgrimage centres: in 1830, in Paris to Sister Catherine Labouré; in 1846, at La Salette near Grenoble to Maximin Giraud and Mélanie Calvat; in 1858, at Lourdes to Bernadette Soubiroux; in 1866, at Filippsdorf (now Czech Republic) to Magdalena Kade; in 1871, at Pontmain, Brittany, and, in 1876, at Pompeii. It was in the 19th century that celebrating May as Mary’s month seems to have become accepted in England. The Catholic Encyclopaedia links the resurgence with Father Aloysius Gentili (1801, Rome - 26 September 1848, Dublin), a Rosminian, who came as a missionary to England in 1835 and worked predominantly in the West Country.

9Hopkins wrote a number of poems to Mary which differ in interesting ways. One of the earlier ones is “Rosa Mystica”. This is not specifically a May poem. It was probably written in 1874 or 1875 while Hopkins was at St Beuno’s, predating by some twelve months “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, the poem that is commonly taken to signal Hopkins’s mature style. “Rosa Mystica” opens:

The rose is a mystery, where is it found?
Is it anything true? Does it grow upon ground?
It was made of earth’s mould but it went from men’s eyes
And its place is a secret and shut in the skies.

In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine
Find me a place by thee, mother of mine.

  • 8 The Glories of Mary, translated from the Italian of St. A. de Liguori, founder of the Congregation (...)

10The poem carefully traces out the significance of the association between Mary and the rose and the tree, ending, “To thy breast, to thy rest, to thy glory divine/ Draw me by charity, mother of mine.”This is in keeping with such Mariology as St Alphonsus de Liguori’s The Glories of Mary of 1750.8 “Rosa Mystica” is written in four-stress lines, that break medially so that the effect is of pairs of short lines, rhyming every other line and turning the six-line stanzas into twelves. The poem’s structure is of a series of questions, whose answers explain the religious significance of the rose in Marian terms:

Is Mary the rose then? Mary the tree?
But the blossom, the blossom there, who can it be? […]
Christ Jesus our Lord, her God and her son (st. 5).

  • 9  “The Spirituality of Gerard Manley Hopkins”, Hopkins Quarterly (Fall 1981), 112. Hereafter cited a (...)

11Father Philip Endean comments on the conventionality of both technique and explanation. 9 If one were to compare the handling of the significance of five in this poem with that in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, both the technical and intellectual sophistication of the latter is marked (st. 7 compared with st. 22 of “The Wreck…”). Yet there are in “Rosa Mystica” signs of what was to come: such lines as “But what a wild flush on the flakes of it stood” show Hopkins using the unusual word “flakes” probably through his etymological interest in connections between “flake” and “flitch” as slivers, here referring to the shapes into which the rose tree bark peels. It is a more precise observation than might be expected in a poem where much is conventional. The line’s internal rhyme is also more complex than might initially appear, with the alliterating “w” immediately succeeded by more widely spaced “f”s (“what…wild flush…flakes”) and the assonance moving from short to long vowels in both parts of the line: “what a…flakes; on…of...stood”. The next line too is unusual in its grammatical deflection of “crimson” into the more active “crimsonings” that uses the gerund’s qualities of non-finite action to vivid effect: “When the rose ran in crimsonings down the cross-wood!” So, although the overall impression is of simplicity, the poem also hints at the mature poetry yet to be written.

12The other two Marian poems by Hopkins that I want to consider were written at Stonyhurst in Lancashire. Stonyhurst, an Elizabethan mansion house, was built in the 1590s and given to the Society of Jesus in 1794, when the Jesuits were moving, to Britain, the English school that they had established on the Continent in the 16th century at a time when English Catholics were forbidden to educate their children at home. The college was greatly expanded by the Society in the 19th century and today still retains something of the air of a substantial Elizabethan mansion. The importance of the college in the 19th century is suggested by the fact that Hopkins was there for three different parts of his Jesuit life. Until the 1840s, it was at the centre of the English province. Before the construction of Farm Street in 1849, it housed the offices of the Society and the vast majority of the 19th-century provincials were old boys of the school. It was only in 1849 that the theologate was transferred to St Beuno’s, with its library drawn from the Arundell collection at Stonyhurst. The Jesuit novitiate was situated at Hodder (a dependent institution near Stonyhurst) until the establishing of Beaumont Lodge (1855) and then Roehampton (1861). With Hodder, which also provided a preparatory school for Stonyhurst, it catered for Catholics from their early years to the final stages of their formal education. In 1840, when it affiliated with the University of London, Stonyhurst became the first Catholic institution in England since the Reformation where Catholics could study for university degrees.

  • 10 Further Letters, op. cit., 234-5.

13St Mary’s Hall, where between 1870 and 1873 Hopkins had studied philosophy and mathematics, etc., lies adjacent to the school through the trees. In 1870 it was probably the furthest north that Hopkins had been. He wrote to his friend, Alexander Mowbray Baillie on April 1st, 1871 saying, “I will tell you something about this place. Perpetual winter smiles. […] The country is also very bare and bleak […]. But nevertheless it is fine scenery, great hills and ‘fells’ with noble outline often subject to charming effects of light (though I am bound to say that total obscuration is the commonest effect of all), and three beautiful rivers.” 10 He described his studies as “a hard course of scholastic logic […] which takes all the fair part of the day and leaves one fagged at the end for what remains. This makes the life painful to nature. I find now too late how to read—at least some books, e.g. the classics: now I see things, now what I read tells, but I am obliged to read by snatches” (234).

  • 11  Private communication.

14In April 1878, Hopkins was back in Stonyhurst for four months, this time teaching the “Philosophers” (undergraduates) preparing for degrees bestowed by the University of London. While there he wrote “The Loss of the Eurydice” and “The May Magnificat”, the latter for exhibition in the Mary corridor of the school where poems to Mary were displayed during May. According to David Knight, the archivist at Stonyhurst, the “tradition of displaying the poems at the college” does not seem to have been brought from the Continent to England when the St Omer/Liège community moved to Lancashire, but can be traced back to 1853 “when a statue of Our Lady was set up outside the school chapel, on the ground floor. The devotions continued there after 1858 when a new school chapel was built, in fact up until 1888, when a new Lady statue was set up outside another (and far more magnificent) school chapel on the first floor.” 11

15However, as Hopkins told Bridges when he sent him a copy in January 1879, the poem had not passed the censors and he dismissed it as something in which he saw “little good but the freedom of the rhythm”. And yet, when one reads it, how much that statement disregards: the poem is vivid, full of life and love. It is also daring in its rhythm: not just the sprung rhythm but the shifts in emphasis that the run-on lines create. It has been suggested that it was rejected because its sprung rhythm was too adventurous, but it may also be that the balance between the love of spring and explication of the doctrinal understanding of Mary falls just a little heavily on the side of nature for the purpose that Hopkins intended.

  • 12  Endean, 111.

16Unlike the “Rosa Mystica”, this poem makes use of the observations of nature that Hopkins recorded in his journal. It shows him part way along the development in spirituality that Philip Endean traces: “Hopkins’s poetry,” he suggests, “reflects a development in his spirituality, under Ignatian influence, away from the religion of unrelieved asceticism towards that of the sacramental presence of Christ throughout the created world.” 12

17If we compare “The May Magnificat” with Cardinal Newman’s “The Month of Mary; A Song” of 1850, we may detect other influences. Newman’s poem begins:

Green are the leaves, and sweet the flowers,
And rich the hues of May;
We see them in the gardens round,
And market-paniers gay:And e’en among our streets, and lanes,
And alleys, we descry,
By fitful gleams, the fair sunshine,
The blue transparent sky.
O Mother maid, be thou our aid
Now in the opening year;
Lest sights of earth to sin give birth,
And bring the tempter near. 13

18Hopkins’s poem has a particularity that makes it much more vivid:

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

19This is the writing of someone who has looked at nature with an artist’s eye, trying to estimate what colours would be needed to convey what he sees. He shares with Newman a Romantic interest in the natural world, but his poem reflects a greater precision of observation and scientific understanding than the older man’s, one that reflects the striking change towards the end of the 19th century in the way that nature is perceived and painted.

  • 14 The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and R. W. Dixon, C. C. Abbott(ed.), revised edn, London (...)

20In June 1883, while Hopkins was again at Stonyhurst teaching classics to university students, he wrote to his friend Canon Richard Watson Dixon telling him that “during May I was asked to write something in honour of the Blessed Virgin, it being the custom to hang up verse-compositions ‘in the tongues’ (which are sometimes far-fetched, for people gravitate to us from odd quarters): I did a piece in the same metre as ‘Blue in the mists all day’ “ (Dixon’s poem, “Nature and Man”). 14The poem was “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe”.

  • 15  Paul J. Barry, Mary in Hopkins’s Writings and Life, Rome: Tiferni Tiberini, 1970, 31-6, cited in O (...)
  • 16  See <>, accessed in Feb. 2009.
  • 17  “The Queen of the Air: Transformation of Myth in Ruskin and Hopkins”,Victorian Poetry, vol. 12, no (...)
  • 18 Paradiso, xxiii, ll.100-102, Mary “the lovely sapphire by which the brightest sphere of heaven is e (...)
  • 19  Cited in OET, 437.
  • 20  P. Barry, op. cit., x.

21The comparison of the Virgin Mary to the air, as Paul Barry points out, is one going back to at least the Middle Ages. 15Theodore Koehler sees it as drawing on two different Marian traditions: from the 14th-century Franciscan, Servasanctus, a tradition in which the air is a cosmic symbol used in praise of Mary and, from the 18th century, Saint Louis-Marie de Montfort, whose treatise of the true devotion was only discovered in 1842, printed the following year and published in English in 1862 in a translation by F. W. Faber. De Montfort is, in Koehler’s view, “not interested in some cosmic praise, but in our intimate union with Mary, as our best way of union with the Lord”, as shown in her question: “When will souls breathe Mary, as much as bodies breathe air?” (Treatise of the true devotion, n. 217).16 Judith Fox also suggests the influence of Ruskin in his comparison of the mothering qualities of Athena as Queen of the Air to those of Mary. 17 One might also point to Dante18 and to Newman’s Parochial Sermon (III.XX.para.6). 19 The poem has also been praised for the intelligence with which it conveys Marian doctrine. 20

22Hopkins’s poem touches numerous previous and contemporary texts, but he makes of them a poem in which the nature imagery and the doctrinal significance are balanced and interwoven. There are observations that Hopkins had made himself, like that of the hand held up to the sky on a sunny day, which he recorded in his Journal in 1867, just after he had graduated from Oxford: “Putting my hand up against the sky whilst we lay on the grass I saw more richness and beauty in the blue than I had known of before, not brilliance but glow and colour. It was not transparent and sapphire-like but turquoise-like, swarming and blushing round the edge of the hand and in the pieces clipped in by the fingers, the flesh being sometimes sunlit, sometimes glassy with reflected light, sometimes lightly shadowed in that violet one makes with cobalt and Indian red” (Journals, 154). There is information from contemporary science, such as “[…] this blue heaven/ The seven or seven times seven/ Hued sunbeam will transmit/ Perfect, not alter it.” Stonyhurst had had an observatory since 1840 whose astronomers contributed to knowledge of the earth’s magnetism and the recording of weather patterns. They also noted unusual atmospheric effects (such as the sunsets after the eruption of Krakatoa) and any solar or lunar eclipses. The college was one of the first schools in the country to have science facilities and a chemistry laboratory. Theodore Koehler points out that although De Montfort had personalised the relation between the worshipper and Mary, Hopkins goes further when he speaks of himself as Mary’s child:

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin; […]
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child (114-7, 124-6).

23Hopkins seems to have practised an innocent, dependant, familial relationship with Jesus and Mary but in co-existence with an observational mind displaying a rigour and precision associated with science and a practising artist. His vision saw the world and saw in it significance beyond. “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring” applies to both.

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1  Humphry House (ed.),completed by Graham Storey, The Journals and Notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkins [1869], 2nd edition revised and enlarged, London: Oxford University Press, 1959, 190. Hereafter cited as Journals.

2 Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Claude Colleer Abbott (ed.),2nd edition enlarged and revised, London: Oxford University Press, 1956, 234. Hereafter cited as Further Letters.

3 The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman H. MacKenzie (ed.),Oxford English Texts Series, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 126. Hereafter cited as OET.

4  Seamus Heaney, The Fire I’ the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Chatterton Lecture, British Academy [1974], London: Oxford University Press, 1975, cited in Norman H. MacKenzie, A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1981, 70.

5  Marina Warner, Alone of All her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976, 3.

6 Ibid., 153.

7 Ibid., 282.

8 The Glories of Mary, translated from the Italian of St. A. de Liguori, founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer; by a father of the same Congregation, London: Burns, Oates & Washourne, 1852.

9  “The Spirituality of Gerard Manley Hopkins”, Hopkins Quarterly (Fall 1981), 112. Hereafter cited as Endean.

10 Further Letters, op. cit., 234-5.

11  Private communication.

12  Endean, 111.

13  See <>, accessed in Feb. 2009.

14 The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and R. W. Dixon, C. C. Abbott(ed.), revised edn, London: Oxford University Press, 1955, 108.

15  Paul J. Barry, Mary in Hopkins’s Writings and Life, Rome: Tiferni Tiberini, 1970, 31-6, cited in OET, 436.

16  See <>, accessed in Feb. 2009.

17  “The Queen of the Air: Transformation of Myth in Ruskin and Hopkins”,Victorian Poetry, vol. 12, no. 4 (Winter 1974), 335-42, cited in OET, 437.

18 Paradiso, xxiii, ll.100-102, Mary “the lovely sapphire by which the brightest sphere of heaven is ensapphired”, OET, 437.

19  Cited in OET, 437.

20  P. Barry, op. cit., x.

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Catherine Phillips

Dr., (Cambridge, United Kingdom)
Catherine Phillips is a Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Downing College, Cambridge. Her publications include Gerard Manley Hopkins (The Oxford Authors Series, 1986; Major Works, 2002), Selected Lettersof Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford, 1990), Hopkins’s Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics, 1996). She has also edited W. B. Yeats’s play, The Hour-Glass: Manuscript Materials (1994) for the Cornell Yeats series, completed the late A. J. Smith’s John Donne vol. ii, Critical Heritage series (Routledge, 1996), written Robert Bridges: A Biography (Oxford, 1992), and a study of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Visual World (Oxford, 2007). Her published articles have included such authors as Tennyson, Bulwer Lytton and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as entries on Robert and Monica Bridges for the New Dictionary of National Biography. Currently in press is a chapter on Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins for the Cambridge History of English Poetry. She is editing Hopkins’s Correspondence with R. K. R. Thornton for the Complete Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press). This is to be followed by an edition of Hopkins’s Poems for the same series.

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