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Expert Comment: Hopkins and Liverpool
Monday 27 April 2015
As we prepare to celebrate the life and work of Gerard Manley Hopkins with our Hopkins at Hope event, poet and literary biographer Nicholas Murray writes a guest expert comment on Hopkins's connection to Liverpool.
The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins arrived in Liverpool at the very end of 1879 to be the curate of St Francis Xavier’s church in Salisbury Street, close to the Liverpool Hope campus. He had mixed feelings about Liverpool but this period produced a small number of his finest poems including the astonishing sonnet “Felix Randal the Farrier”, written on 28th April 1880 in response to the death of one of his parishioners, Felix Spencer, who had died at the age of 31 (only four years younger than Hopkins) from tuberculosis. I call it astonishing because its form was strikingly innovative for its time and its powerful language and imagery seemed to burst out of the traditional constraint of the sonnet form. It was not published until 1918 when his friend the poet Robert Bridges edited the first published volume of Hopkins’s poetry.
Hopkins had arrived from a parish in Leigh in Lancashire, where he had become very fond of the people, seduced by what he told Robert Bridges was “the charming and cheery heartiness of these Lancashire Catholics, which is deeply comforting”. Liverpool, however, gave him no comfort.
After four months in the job he wrote to another friend, Alexander Baillie: “My Liverpool work is very harassing and makes it hard to write. Tonight I am sitting in my confessional, but the faithful are fewer than usual...Here comes someone.” To another friend in the same month, Hopkins confessed: “The parish work of Liverpool is very wearying to mind and body and leaves me with nothing but odds and ends of time. There is merit in it but little Muse, and indeed 26 lines is the whole I have written in more than half a year, since I left Oxford.” By the end of 1880 things were no better. He confessed to Richard Watson Dixon: “Liverpool is of all places the most museless. It is indeed a most unhappy and miserable spot. There is moreover no time for writing anything serious.”
Hopkins had indeed written very little but that little was to include “Felix Randal” which by common consent is one of the great short lyrics in English of the nineteenth century. On 21st April 1880 a thirty-one year old horse-shoer or farrier, Felix Spencer, died of consumption in his Birchfield street home in the parish. He had been visited on his death-bed by Father Hopkins. Seven days later Hopkins wrote his poem about a man after whose death “my duty all ended”.
Hopkins was touched by the tears of the dying young man: “Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal” and contrasted the farrier’s consumption with the vigour of his early manhood: “How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,/When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,/Didst fettle for the great dray horse his bright and battering sandal!”
In June, the poet sent to Bridges “a sonnet and a little lyric” [“Felix Randal” and “At a Wedding”] saying they were “the only things I have written in nine months”. Although some critics have tried to claim that there was some condescension or belittlement of Felix in the way he is described in the poem, most objective readers, I imagine, would find the exact opposite, a generous and heartfelt poem that expresses remarkable humane sympathy, however great the gulf between the two young men in their 30s whose vocations and life experience were so radically different. Liverpool may have been “museless” for the sensitive Oxford man in a poor central Liverpool parish but it generated at least one great poem.
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Nicholas Murray was born in Liverpool. He is the biographer of Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet who died in Liverpool, and the author of So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool (Liverpool University Press, 2007).
English at Liverpool Hope University