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Victorian Poetry 39.1 (2001) 69-82

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Hopkins and Augustine

James Finn Cotter

In an earlier essay, "Augustine's Confessions and The Wreck of the Deutschland," I traced the influence of The Confessions on Hopkins' ode, from the explicit reference to Augustine's conversion: "Or as Austin, a lingering-out sweet skill" (101, l. 78) to the deliberate echo in the lines: "Thou heardst me, truer than tongue, confess / Thy terror, O Christ, O God" (ll. 11-12). 1 The autobiography of the Bishop of Hippo, one of the poet's favorite books, was intended as a testimony to God's intervention in his life, an admission of his own sin and misdirection, and a hymn of praise to God's power and majesty in dealing with the human race. All these themes, as well as the imagery of storms and shipwreck, darkness and daybreak, altar, walls, tongue, winged heart, and the crucified and risen Christ, unite the two works in the scriptural and poetic traditions of Christian witness.

In this essay I wish to expand the topic to discuss Augustine's influence on some of Hopkins' central ideas: the Great Sacrifice, the Incarnation, the blessings of creation, the experience of beauty, and the notion of inscape as a Christic and Trinitarian act of perception. I shall point out direct and possible sources, as well as analogues between Augustine's other works, beyond The Confessions, and Hopkins' writings, as part of the Christian spiritual-theological heritage. As the poet-priest testifies in The Wreck on his encounters with his risen King: "For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand" (101, l. 40), he, like Augustine, devoted his life to discovering how Jesus of Nazareth had become the cosmic Lord of history and creation. "From the creation of the world," St. Paul says of God's presence in the world now revealed in Christ, "His invisible qualities, such as His eternal power and divine nature, have been made visible and have been understood through His handiwork" (Romans 1.20). The God of yesterday is now the Lord of today; Yahweh is made present in Jesus. From Paul to Augustine to Hopkins, the "Creator and Lord" of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises is "the same, yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13.8).

Among his annotations on a Bible which he received in the fall of 1865, now in the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College, Hopkins makes his earliest reference to an Augustinian [End Page 69] work. 2 At Oxford, a year before his conversion, he was already immersed in the Tractarian interest in the writings of the church fathers. On the verse from John 5.17: "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work," Hopkins writes: "[Jesus] defends the work done on the Sabbath day. After the seventh day of creation God never ceases to work. Saint Augustine quotes the Jews, as wiser than the Arians" (p. 94). The reference is to a homily of Saint Augustine on the Gospel of Saint John. On this verse ("My Father worketh and I work"), Augustine writes: "Behold, the Jews understand what the Arians do not understand. The Arians, in fact, say that the Son is not equal with the Father. . . . [The Jews] did nevertheless understand that in these words such a Son of God was intimated to them as should be equal with God" (XVII, 16). 3

Augustine then goes on in this passage to explain what "equal with God" means: "Was He not therefore equal with God? He did not make Himself equal, but the Father begat Him equal. Were He to make Himself equal, He would fall by robbery (per rapinam)." He likens such a "usurpation" to the pride of the fallen angels, and continues:

Christ, however, was begotten equal to the Father, not made; begotten of the substance of the Father. Whence the apostle thus declares Him: "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God." What means, "thought it not robbery"? He usurped not equality with God...


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