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 more.
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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