2. Contextual Reading

A more frequent approach to Hopkins is to regard him as a real person living at a certain time, with a life apart from his poems, but which still influenced them. Contextual reading asks:

  • how were the poems produced
  • how were they received?

Some of the contexts considered are as follows.


A number of books written about any author is called ‘The Life and Works of..' In this context, Hopkins' whole life is described, but with an emphasis on his actual poetry writing rather than on what he had for breakfast. Each poem is embedded:

  • in the circumstances of his writing it
  • any letters he may have written about it
  • any journal entries
  • anything he may have seen or done that may have caused its production.

Such things can often offer vital clues as to interpretation. However, we always have to remember that the art is not the same as the life, and, ultimately, it is the art at which we are looking.

  • Suggest a poem of Hopkins where your understanding has been helped by knowing something of his life.
    • How did it help?
  • Suggest another poem, when this knowledge did not help.


Hopkins was born into a particular era of history, in this case, the Victorian era:

  • does knowing something of Victorian values and culture, the intellectual and religious debates of the time, help us to understand him? Answers to this vary widely
  • by becoming a Catholic, Hopkins put himself out of the mainstream of Victorian life: is this helpful to know?
  • before that, his values and tastes had been upper middle-class Victorian: perhaps he took a great deal of this into his life as a Jesuit. Would, for example, his class consciousness be derived from this? In a poem like Tom's Garland, it might be helpful to know this.

Non-contextual critical approaches hardly even suggest Hopkins was a Victorian. And insofar as the reception of his poetry came after the Victorian era, there is some justification in seeing him as a modernist. Indeed, he was included in one very influential anthology of modernist poetry, The Faber Book of Modern Verse.

  • Has it been of any help to you to think of Hopkins as a Victorian?
    • If it has, what help exactly?

Part of a literary tradition

Here the emphasis is on the history of literature. The question of development and influences becomes important.

For Hopkins, major questions are:

  • to what extent he was a Romantic poet? In other words, did he derive his poetry from poets like Wordsworth, Keats or Shelley?
  • how influenced was he by the Pre-Raphaelites, especially the Pre-Raphaelite poets like Christina Rossetti?
  • when his poetry was published, how did he influence later poets, especially the so-called ‘modernists'?

More recent literary criticism has brought out how much Hopkins derived from his classical and biblical reading:

  • W. H. Gardner's major study goes into detail about his Greek studies, as well as the influence of Welsh poetry
  • others have studied biblical poetry with its use of parallelism and found Hopkins to be influenced by this.

Within this context also comes the question of how innovative Hopkins was as a poet. We can only really answer this question in a literary historical context, by looking at previous poets and also his contemporary poets. Were they doing the same sort of thing or not? It's always quite difficult to see exactly how unusual a pioneer is if later people have all copied him.

  • Have you been able to get any sense of how fresh Hopkins' poetic style was?
    • Or have you been content to accept other people's word for it?
  • What would you say was experimental about it?

Religious / philosophical

Perhaps as a reaction to non-contextual criticism, Roman Catholic critics in particular have tried to make sure Hopkins' Catholic beliefs have been understood, and the way in which they are expressed in his poems. This guide examines Hopkins as a Christian poet in a more general way, but refers to his specific beliefs and the influence of Jesuit training where relevant. Hopkins was a studious thinker and the Jesuit training involved some philosophy, as well as Christian theology. The philosophy of Duns Scotus is the most obvious to study because it echoes so closely with some of Hopkins' poetic terminology, such as inscape and individuation.


  • what is significant is what is expressed in the poetry, not what is believed in Hopkins' head (or the reader's own)
  • students need to comprehend what it feels like for Hopkins to be a Christian believer, trying to make sense of his life and the life of the world around him through poetry.
  • Have you found Hopkins' religious beliefs attractive or off-putting in studying his work?
  • How far does comprehending his beliefs help you to understand his poetry?


The socio-economic, or political approach would include Marxist and feminist readings of Hopkins. Poets who do not engage directly with their society are often less attractive to political criticism, and Hopkins is a case in point. Much political criticism tends to look at the total œuvre of a writer, including diaries, journals, sermons and so on, to derive the class-based consciousness out of which he writes. Quite frankly, there is much less here than in other areas.

It would be possible to take the Marxist approach that religion is the ‘opiate of the people', and see Hopkins as either deceived or as deceiving others into some sort of false consciousness. He appears to have been rather conservative and traditional in his views, so Marxist criticism tends to be somewhat negative about him and to pay scant attention to the complexity and honesty of his poetry. The nature of Hopkins' work is such that there has been little feminist criticism of it.

  • If you are politically-minded, or interested in feminist approaches to criticism, what have you found of particular comment in Hopkins' poetry?

Psycho-analytical criticism

These studies look at Hopkins' psychological state. This is not the same as non-contextual studies that look at the poet's mind as the organising principle in his poetry:

  • the non-contextual is only looking at the poet's mind as the producer of poetic texts: what sort of imagery did it typically favour, for example?
  • a psychological approach will look at the poet's life as a whole, and the influences on his behaviour, his predispositions, complexes and so on, taking the poetry as only part of the evidence.

Hopkins' profile

Hopkins presents a very interesting profile, especially to psycho-analysis:

  • the psychology of conversion is always interesting
  • there appears little sexual expression in his life: what happened to those drives? Were they sublimated, and if so, how?
  • some of his habits seem obsessive and even guilt-driven
  • are his poems, then, cries from the subconscious? Do they represent an effort to order those suppressed needs and drives?

The danger with such an approach is that it is reductionist. It ‘reduces' the poet to fit the theory, so that anything he says is necessarily psychological first and foremost, rather than a spontaneous utterance of enjoyment, or an expression of religious belief. All individuals have a psychology, just as they all have beliefs, can all use words, and live at a certain time and place. All these things cannot be reduced to just one aspect from which the rest derive.

  • Have you found it interesting to think about Hopkins as a person?
    • Has it helped you enjoy or understand the poetry?
      • If so, in what way?
      • Or which poems?


At the end of the day, all good critical approaches have to have evidence, and evidence requires a thorough knowledge of the text, not a quick trawling through a few critical essays or books. Usually, a great writer is bigger than any single approach, but that doesn't mean refusing to look at them from this angle or that angle. Nor does it mean that one angle or idea is as good as another. Some approaches are more relevant to a particular writer than others. Some opinions and evaluations are better than others because they draw on a wider knowledge or a deeper understanding of that writer. And that comes from hard work and a willingness to be sympathetic to the writer and trying to feel and think through them and with them.

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