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The Plough Diet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

April 11, 2017 by

Hopkins book cover

To be honest, if I hadn’t been asked to review it for this blog, the odds are pretty slim I’d have picked up The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Plough’s latest book: regrettably, I consider myself largely tone-deaf to the poetic rhapsodies of Hopkins et al. Published last week to coincide with the start of US National Poetry Month (April), I imagined the new volume packed with, well, poems – each a perfect monolith of incalculable genius – and I doubted I’d find a foothold.

Now, if poetry makes you as giddy as spring, stop right here and head on over to Plough.com. You don’t need me to tell you how much you’ll love this collection.

But if the witty world of wordsmiths gives you panic attacks, breathe deep and stay with me for a minute. Because as far as Hopkins goes, relief is in sight. For starters, you don’t glimpse a poem in this book until page twenty-eight. Margaret R. Ellsberg, professor of English at Barnard College and the book’s editor, begins by taking you on a detailed tour of Gerard Manley’s early life and primary influences. After introducing his first five poems, she then continues the journey, drawing on Hopkins’s diaries and letters, until page sixty-six, when we meet his breakthrough work, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

Skillfully providing information and tools, Ellsberg enables us to not only size up this giant but also to scale it and start cracking through its exterior coating of words to reach the meaning welling from within. Refreshed, a reader who has come this far and now grasps sprung rhythm and an avalanche of literary devices will, poetically-speaking, grow wings with which to soar through the following sections.

The ride turns out to be breathtaking. Hopkins is a man who, as a friend recently remarked, “throws himself into the center of creation and, as fast as the pen can write, glorifies his Creator.” He is a man who unreservedly gives of himself to the divine; who exists to praise. He comes off as an archetypical eccentric and “weakling,” but nevertheless one who, strengthened by the grace of his Creator, stubbornly, almost naively, defies many of his day’s religious and literary conventions. Not one of his poems was published in his lifetime, yet they revolutionized modern poetry, all the while conveying an unmistakable confidence in God. Even the non-poetic such as me will marvel at the mighty Hand at work here.

Latter chapters chronicle Hopkins’s struggles with loneliness, disappointment, and fatigue. “Gods justice often bewilders human beings,” Ellsberg writes, describing the particular sense of failure and sadness it seems God sometimes allows those nearest him to feel.

But Hopkins was faithful even while openly writing of his wrestlings with the Almighty. In one of his final journal entries he states:

But man can know God, can mean to give him glory. This then was why he was made, to give God glory and to mean to give it; to praise God fréely, wíllingly to reverence him, gládly to serve him. Man was made to give, and mean to give, God glory.

As fellow blogger Shannon McPherson wrote last week quoting Philippians 4:8-9, we should take time to think on things that are praiseworthy and admirable. The lifework of a person whose existence wasn’t easy and whose ending was far from glorious, but who was willing to give his all to God and let him do the rest is one such thing.

Learn more about The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins.


This post is part of a series highlighting books and resources available through Plough.com, the Bruderhof’s publishing house. Read previous posts in this series.

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