Synopsis of Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves

The ‘terrible sonnets'

In October, 1884 Hopkins took up his post as Professor of Classics at University College, Dublin. It could be expected that such a post suited Hopkins' academic training and background and his love for classical languages, and that he should have been very happy and productive there. In fact, the reverse seems to be true. The few poems he did write in Ireland are, on the whole, bleak and depressed, to the extent that they have been called the ‘terrible sonnets'. Nevertheless, they are some of the most powerful sonnets he ever wrote, and they repay close study, not only because they show a different side of Hopkins, but because of their sheer poetic brilliance.

An alien in Ireland

All sorts of reasons have been given for Hopkins' unhappiness:

  • most obvious was the homesickness and loneliness he felt
  • Hopkins is really a very English poet, and he felt an alien in Ireland, even though it was a very catholic country
  • Irish Catholicism was different from English Catholicism. It was much more restrictive (censorship being quite normal then), much more legalistic and external and much more narrow-minded
  • Irish faith was more political, embracing the Irish struggle for independence from Britain. Hopkins was profoundly unhappy with some of the anti-English sentiment being expressed by his colleagues.

The experience of University College

  • Hopkins' job was not the academically challenging occupation he expected. Rather, it involved teaching large classes of reluctant students, who had to study Greek and Latin to enter the priesthood or to get their degree.
  • The Catholic University College was the poor relation to the Protestant Trinity College, and its facilities were abysmal compared to these of the Catholic institutions in England, such as Stonyhurst, St. Beuno's or Manresa House, let alone Hopkins' old Oxford college.
  • Besides the lecturing, he had to mark hundreds of exam scripts of students taking the equivalent of ‘A' level Latin, a task he considered utterly tedious.

Hopkins' ‘dark night of the soul'

The ‘terrible sonnets' are also an expression of what is often called the dark night of the soul. With Hopkins, it would be easy to label this as clinical depression, especially as he does seem to have suffered nervous debilitation at times before. But the symptoms fit in closely to the descriptions of this spiritual state.

More on ‘the dark night of the soul': Many Christian saints and mystics, as well as ordinary Christians, have experienced this spiritual state, as described by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic. In it, God seems far away and faith seems to evaporate. A once buoyant and hopeful faith can seem to collapse into dust and ashes, and it may be a few years even before a deeper faith is regained.

Whatever the reasons, Hopkins' intense emotional and spiritual suffering produced some very fine poetry.

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