On 'G.M. Hopkins in Glasgow'
by Guusje Groote
This sonnet is dedicated to Jack Rillie ("For J.A.M.R."),
who worked as a lecturer at the University of Glasgow at the same time
as Morgan. Morgan describes Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) working
as a parish priest in the slums of Glasgow in 1880, managing to weave
different aspects of Hopkins' life into the sonnet. At the age of 22,
Hopkins converted to Catholicism and spent most of his life preaching.
After a brief period in Glasgow he left for Dublin to teach Greek. It
was not until after his death that his poetry was published and he became
known as a poet. Hopkins is best known for his poem 'The Wreck of the
Deutschland', a poem that he wrote in response to the sinking of a German
ship carrying Franciscan nuns. In the last few years of his life, Hopkins
sank into a bleak depression from which he was never to recover. There
is no evidence that Morgan based Hopkins' epiphany on any historic data.
Instead of emphasizing Hopkins' literary side, Morgan has decided to
emphasize Hopkins' religious qualities. The sonnet is a moving account
that presents Hopkins as a devoted figure and a sympathetic priest.
The poem not only carries religious connotations; it also invokes politics.
These two themes constantly overlap, which is emphasized by Morgan's
intriguing colour usage. "Irish Glasgow" (l. 4) is the first
direct reference to politics. The "Fenian poor ex-Ulstermen"
(l. 5) are Irish radicals who want to overthrow the British government
in Ireland. Red is a symbolic colour for revolution and thus also for
these Irish revolutionaries. Although Hopkins as an Englishman would
be an enemy of the Irish, he is depicted as a "Red" (l. 9).
Here "Red" can also be interpreted as a communist. The "British
angels" (l. 8) or missionaries call Hopkins "their soldier"
(l. 9). This makes Hopkins a representative of their religious 'army'.
What at first seemed a political encounter becomes religious, and politics
and religion merge into one. As a Catholic soldier and an English Jesuit,
Hopkins is associated with Protestantism.
Angels symbolize purity and light. In line 8 Morgan stresses their divinity
through their whitening, as the "angels blanched". In the
fire of the "burning bush" (l. 6) the colour red returns.
God appeared to Moses in a burning bush to confirm his belief. The Irish
men also seek confirmation of their faith. Hopkins tries to help them
when he "blessed them" (l. 11). Other words like "mid-amen"
(l. 8) that is only used in Catholic surroundings, or "creed"
(l. 10), subsequently points at the existing contrasts and similarities
between the Catholics and the Protestants.
He might have been able to console and confirm others, but Hopkins himself
faced many religious difficulties. Morgan brings this aspect into the
poem when Hopkins' firm belief suddenly begins to waver. What should
have steadied Hopkins' conviction causes a sense of doubt. As a preacher
Hopkins should be the one who helps and hearten people; however it seems
as if things are turned upside down. Hopkins is confused and finds it
very hard to find consolation in his faith.
The sonnet's final lines announce Hopkins' depression. He is surrounded
by darkness and is unable to escape from the bitterness and disillusion.
There is no ordinary darkness; it's a "coal-black darkness"
(l. 12). It becomes even worse as the darkness is "clattering on
his head" (l. 12) and Hopkins knows that this gruesome "clattering"
noise will not stop. These colours make Hopkins' depression more severe.
"Blue" in "bluely burning need" (l. 13) recalls
coldness, fear and depression. In "burning" Morgan repeats
the colour red, and the heat, the fire, and religious connotations from
the "burning bush" (l. 6). Words as "half-crushed"
and "half-fed" (l. 13) emphasize the sense of despair once
The picture of the working class environment emphasises existing differences
and misery. The men do not have much money as they are "tight-belted"
(l. 4). Their bitterness is worsened by the fact that they are drunk.
Hopkins walks home to the "North Woodside Road" (l. 14), which
is situated in the poor areas of Glasgow. These subtle references to
the harsh aspects of the working classes darken the tone of the poem.
The sonnet makes politics and religion hard to distinguish from one
another. There is a constant overlap and Morgan beautifully interweaves
the themes through colours. Morgan gradually allows the reader to become
part of Hopkins' inner world. Instead of depicting a heroic poet, Morgan
emphasizes Hopkins' faith and here Hopkins becomes a vulnerable man
who ends up doubting his ultimate goal in life.
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