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  • Hopkins and Tractarianism
  • Peter Groves (bio)

The life and work of Gerard Manley Hopkins resist easy classification. In terms of biography, the "Tractarian Hopkins" was a wilful undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford who drank at the well of ritualism on his way to converting to Roman Catholicism. While the young Hopkins did describe himself as a "Tractarian,"1 historical hindsight might prefer "ritualist," or "early Anglo-Catholic," and contemporary opponents would have chosen "Romanist" or "Puseyite." Readers of Victorian literature, however, can observe in his poetry and his theory stylistic and intellectual traits which belong in the tradition of Keble and of Newman. Close examination of those traits comes up against the awkward chronology of Hopkins short life—he was born very shortly before what R. W. Church was to identify as the end of the Oxford Movement, and spent a few ardent if immature years as an Oxford high churchman before being received into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of twenty-two. The ritualistic Hopkins flourished in an Oxford which had changed by the 1860s, but critics have found aspects of his entire life and output which suggest the influence of people and ideas undoubtedly Tractarian.

In contrast with much of the century after Hopkins' death, the last fifteen years or so have seen several substantial biographical studies of the poet. Discussions have been moved markedly forward by the examination of archival material, particularly in Oxford, which gives insight into the influence of many senior figures upon the young Hopkins, leading Tractarians among them. Moreover, whereas some interpretation of Hopkins had suffered from a tendency to see him as so very idiosyncratic a poet that his work bore little or no classificatory analysis or contextual study, a laudable desire to reverse this trend has seen Tractarianism, among other influences, assert itself as a major area within literary critical analyses. Both these strands of scholarship —biographical and literary—allow us to see strong theological links between Hopkins' work and the heavily patristic theology of Keble, Pusey, and Liddon (as well as the better established connection with Newman's work). They also serve to remind us that, for Hopkins, Tractarian and ritualistic alliegances were never less than controversial, and were indeed themselves a crucial stage on that journey of rebellion which would end with his conversion to Rome and his father's anguished question "O Gerard my darling boy, are you indeed gone from me?"2 [End Page 105]

Both of the major biographies of Hopkins which appeared in the early 1990s gave proper attention to the importance of the high church movement in Hopkins' early Oxford career and his growth to intellectual maturity.3 Following them, and concentrating closely on the early years, Jude V. Nixon's Gerard Manley Hopkins and His Contemporaries: Liddon, Newman, Darwin, and Pater moved further by introducing readers of Hopkins to valuable primary and secondary material which demonstrated that importance even more fully. Nixon's attentiveness to Henry Parry Liddon was particularly welcome, since the historical Liddon's dim figure—positioned so squarely in Pusey's shadow —could now be illuminated by his assiduously kept journals, in which the undergraduate Hopkins features frequently during the relevant years. In the year of his conversion, Hopkins attended Liddon's Bampton Lectures, and Nixon's careful reading identifies a number of connections between Christological themes in Hopkins' early poetry and Liddon's own teaching, connections which are echoed by scholars who have built on his work.

The most specific and substantial study of Hopkins and Tractarian poetry was published by Margaret Johnson in 1997. Johnson offers a description of what she calls "early" Tractarian poetry and Keble's work in particular, and then devotes a chapter to each of Richard Watson Dixon, Digby Dolben, Christina Rossetti, and John Henry Newman. (Dixon, the teacher with whom Hopkins renewed contact later in life, initiating a celebrated correspondence, is not easily fitted into a Tractarian mold, and his affinities with Pre-Raphaelitism are discussed at some length.) Johnson identifies broad features to describe Tractarian poetry: "a powerful understanding of Christ's incarnational presence in the world, the revelation of God's presence in and through natural forces, the recognition...


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