Serving God

A common theme

This theme is a fairly common one with Christian poets, for example, George Herbert and John Milton. A Victorian Christian poet whom Hopkins admired, Christina Rossetti, also writes about it. Victorian Christianity in general emphasised humankind's duty to serve God, and there were countless biographies of devout Christians who gave their lives to serve God as pioneers, missionaries and so forth, in the nineteenth century. The Jesuits, too, saw their disciplined life as a way of serving God actively, as teachers, parish priests, missionaries etc. See Big ideas from the Bible, Servanthood, obedience and authority. So, really, it would have been surprising had Hopkins not written on this theme.

The difficulties of service

It could be supposed that service to God becomes easier for a Christian as they mature in the Christian life. However, this does not seem to have been the case with Hopkins. It seemed to get more and more difficult and problematic. An earlier poem like The Starlight Night mentions his service: ‘Prayer, patience, alms, vows', but these are set alongside his enjoyment of Nature. Perhaps the number of exclamation marks may indicate a hidden tension, but not a tension he is sufficiently conscious of to admit to.

Service as a sacrifice

In The Windhover, there is a frank admission that at first glance, Christian service seems a rather dull and boring idea. The wild life of the windhover seems more natural and wonderful. However, after considering the life of Christ, Hopkins comes round to admitting that a life of sacrifice is ultimately much more worthwhile - the other is a temptation. He finds comfort in the admission that service is a sacrifice.

In almost his last poem, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, Hopkins is able to depict this sort of life. Alphonsus was the ideal Christian servant, and was canonised for his example. The original militant imagery of the Jesuits, as milites Christi, or soldiers of Christ, was thus transformed into patience and watchfulness.

The cost of service

However Hopkins was not Alphonsus, and there is a world of difference between them when we see how Hopkins is portrayed in To Seem the Stranger. Here, Hopkins fully counts the cost of his service, which has now landed him at a ‘third remove'. The cost seems to be a lot higher than when he first became a convert, and he is making a frank complaint to God about it. He feels unheard and ‘a lonely began'.

Ironically, only students and readers over a hundred years later are able to see that this has all been redeemed, in that Hopkins' ‘hoard' is now revealed to thousands and thousands of readers, so that his service did produce very positive results.

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