By Lesley J. Higgins, English Professor, York University (Toronto)
Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was acutely aware of humanity’s impact on the environment. He could marvel at engineering projects like the Great Laxley Wheel on the Isle of Man but fret when nature became “smeared” with human detritus, or lament when a stand of poplars was destroyed to feed the insatiable industrial appetite for lumber. Each poem features a speaker finely attuned to the natural world, its creatures and processes—whether a bird breasting the wind, a fierce storm at sea, or “cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”
Hopkins (1844‒89), who was raised in a comfortable, aspirational Anglican home near London, was encouraged to be creative by his parents and artistic family members (not just sketch artists, but an uncle who excelled at the new-fangled art of photography). Diaries and letters are vivid repositories of responses to the natural world; his poetry celebrates the “grandeur” of creation and its Creator. Like many Victorians, he loved to ramble: frequently, in the Oxford countryside while a university student; arduously, in Switzerland; ecstatically, when exploring the valleys of Clwyd (Jesuit theological studies took him to St. Beuno’s, in northeastern Wales); contentedly, when roaming near Monasterevin, Co. Kildare. But also like many Victorians, walking in the working-class parishes of Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford and Dublin taught Hopkins that humanity’s habitats could be infernal.
As a poet, Hopkins was ahead of his time—unapologetically so. When his friend (and future British Poet Laureate) Robert Bridges complained about experiments with rhythm, genre and wordplay, Hopkins replied, “With all my licences, or rather laws [of creating verse], I am stricter than you and I might say than anybody I know.” Because of those innovations, when his poems were first published in 1918, the Victorian writer seemed a natural contemporary of modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound.
As an environmentalist, Hopkins was also ahead of his time. “Ecocriticism” only emerged as an academic subject in the 1990s, at the intersections of environmental studies, ethics and the imagination (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962, was a vital inspiration). Major works in the field range from Lawrence Buell’s ground-breaking studies, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature-Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995) and Writing for an Endangered Planet: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (2001), to Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (2015).
Organizers of a virtual international Hopkins conference being planned for June 2021 are hoping that the theme, “Hopkins and His Environments,” will attract presenters who are particularly interested in ecocritical approaches to the creative, ethical and cultural dimensions of his writings. “Environments” is broadly defined, however: natural, textual, aesthetic, political, theological, Jesuitical and social. Topics that participants find compelling could include Hopkins and Victorian science; Victorian eco-systems and environmentalism; the literary and aesthetic environments of his poetry and prose (including Pre-Raphaelite, Aestheticist, or Decadent art); the intersections of his works and those of his contemporaries; and the political and cultural “surroundings” of Hopkins’ life in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
As a popular term, “environment” came into its own in the 19th century, featured in works by the likes of Thomas Carlyle, Herbert Spencer and Henry Sidgwick. “Hopkins and His Environments” will be a three-day exploration of its literary, scientific, social, political and cultural implications in relation to a remarkable poet. Faculty at Jesuit colleges and universities are invited to submit proposals for 20-minute presentations during the Conference, which will be held by Zoom. The deadline for submissions is January 25, 2021; please consult the conference website, gerardmanleyhopkins.online, or contact Professor Lesley Higgins, email@example.com, for more information.