Gerard Manley Hopkins: the poet, the priest, who deserves a place in the gay canon

Fun literary fact: when a Jesuit priest named Father Gerard Hopkins has written a long, experimental poem about a shipwreck in the estuary of the river Thames, in 1876, he sent it to his order the diary of the Month, who thought he could publish it. He was wrong about that. However, in the edition in which she had hoped to see their work, there was a short poem written by a young student of Oxford, identified only as OFO’FWW. Curiosity wants to know the initial ones: this was the young Oscar Fingal O’flahertie Wills Wilde, the first work to be published.

It feels like a historical oddity, because the pair otherwise in a manner: Gerard Manley Hopkins, as we now call him, was a small, pious and serious, who lives a life of obedience with the utmost Catholic orders after his conversion to the faith. Wilde was a contrast of large, debauched and irreverent, dazzling the smarter salons and in the direction of a terrible fall. That is nearly rubbed off the pages of a magazine of the Jesuits was probably as close as were ever going to come.

But the two men have much more in common than that. It is clear from Hopkins private writings that he was gay, and while he has gone to great lengths to suppress his sexuality, that very suppression infuses his work. As Professor Gregory Woods observes in his landmark A History of the Literature of the Gay: “the more you read Hopkins, and the more he becomes convinced that his particular torture was aware of the intensely carnal nature of his spirituality.”

Poem of the week: The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Hopkins is, rightly, loved and venerated by Catholics for the intensity with which he expresses his religious devotion. But with the centenary of its first publication, which falls next year, it is time that Hopkins has been given a place in the canon of gay letters, alongside more obvious contemporaries like Henry James.

Born at Stratford, in east London in 1844, Hopkins was the eldest son of a shipping insurer. He reached Oxford, as a culture of the outbreak of the war, with the High Anglicanism of a number of famous Oxford on one side, and an anti-effeminate “muscular Christianity”. In an era In which young men tended to express difference through the prism of religion, Hopkins is instinctively attracted to the bells-and-smells Church worship High.

Then he went a good deal further, the conversion to Catholicism in 1866 and join the priesthood, but not before his heart had been broken by a consciously outrageous young poet named Digby Mackworth Dolben met while studying at the University of Oxford. Dolben was expelled from Eton for his flagrant love affair with another guy, but to wander the countryside dressed as a barefoot, medieval monk.

Dolben died at the age of 19, having just noticed the poor Hopkins existence, and it is unlikely that Hopkins never had physical contact with anyone: he was horrified to find himself aroused by images of Christ on the cross, and would scourge himself after erotic dreams.

Instead, his vice was poetry. As his order frowned on such things, he struggled privately, to compose verse in a root system of the metric of his own invention. Unfortunately, with its complicated syntax and bizarre shape, which baffled everyone. When he died of typhoid fever in 1889, at the age of only 44, virtually none of his poetry had been published.

It was not until 1918, that his university friend Robert Bridges, then poet laureate – he has published a collection of edition. By the mid-20th century, Hopkins was regarded as a visionary genius.

Even though her work is predominantly religious, a frequent theme is the physical beauty of the men who work, as well as of Christ, and the frenetic repetitions and enjoyed its verses seem to speak strongly repressed passion. As Woods says: “Its technical innovations are the key to the real expression of an eroticism that, for all his struggles against the temptations of voyeurism and masturbation, could not conceive of suppress everything.”

His poetry remains difficult. My novel Hopkins Enigma follows the comic fortunes of an unscrupulous chancer who tries to take advantage of Hopkins opacity to convince the gullible that the secrets of the Holy Grail are hidden in its verses.

This mad scheme to arouse Hopkins mania is entirely cynical, but I hope that my novel can generate an interest in this neglected poet for the best reasons. As well as the introduction of a new generation for its rich, engaging work, I’d like Hopkins to existing admirers consider as intrinsic to his sexuality was to his genius. A century after its first publication, I hope that we can get to think of him as part of the same canon as Wilde, joined by more of the near-coincidence in a Jesuit periodical.

Simon Edge Of the novel, Hopkins: the Enigma is published by Lightning Books, £8.99, and is available from the Guardian bookshop for £ 7.64. You can view a one-minute trailer here.