Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Hopkins viewed same-sex love as something brought on by God through creation, but depicts that same-sex love should not be done physically, but rather mentally and internally, which ultimately is suppressing one’s sexuality. This differs from depictions of same-sex love that is familiar to us in the early 21st century where same sex love is openly embraced, even by rainbow flags. However, the 21st century is more receptive and acceptive to the gay community versus Hopkins’ generation and time during the Victorian Era.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins was a recognized English poet. Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844, and died of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, in Dublin. Hopkins was an educated individual. He attended college in Oxford where he studied Classics. He was recognized for his poetry and won a poetry award for his distinct poetry style which granted him the opportunity to attend college in Oxford. Hopkins wrote while in college. And, while in college, Hopkins ends up falling in love with another male poet, Digby Mackworth Dolben. Unfortunately, Dolben drowned and this affected Hopkins greatly. Hopkins decided to quit writing poetry and decided to convert to Catholicism and then became a Jesuit priest in 1868. His poetry focused on nature and religious topics such as his work “The Wreck of the Deutschland” which talked about the deaths of nuns on a ship, which he wrote when he decided to give poetry another chance in 1876. It is unclear how his work was disseminated when he wrote personally for himself during his time in Dublin. But, later on when Hopkins tries to publish his poem on deceased nuns through the Jesuit magazine, they rejected publishing his work because they thought it resembled Walt Whitman, another gay poet, so he decided not to publish his work ever again. As if being gay and having to hide it is not enough, not publishing his poetry depressed him even further. His professors and friends at college read his work and they often insisted for Hopkins to publish his work, but after being rejected even by a religious publisher, publishing was not up for discussion. It was only after his death, that his poems were published by his poet friend Robert Bridges in 1918 and read by many as stated in “Gerard Manley Hopkins” by Charlotte Barrett.

“Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means – where a glance Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance… How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleaned else from swarm-ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance. To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone, Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known; World’s loveliest – men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face. What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own, Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.” The short emotional quotation is from “To what serves Mortal Beauty”, one of the multiple poems written by Hopkins. This poem was written during Hopkins’ time in Dublin, and published when Bridges decided to publish Hopkins’ work in 1918 following his death. In this poem, Hopkins is revealing his depiction regarding same sex love. Hopkins begins by discussing Saint Gregory the Great and his encounter with two young males.

These two young men are portraying one aspect of the purpose of humanity’s beauty, more or so male creations, who managed to spread religion. Hopkins continues the poem by saying that God’s/ Christian law is to love each other. He later poses a question as to what to do when faced with such attractive beauties (specifically males). He discusses what he believes the solution is. The speaker in this poem is Hopkins and in doing so, he reveals his inner conflict. “Where art thou, friend, whom I shall never see, Conceiving whom I must conceive amiss? Or sunder’d from my sight in the age that is”. The second quote is also from Hopkins’ work “Where art thou, friend”. My interpretation of this text further shows was Hopkins’ feelings regarding his sexuality. Suppression. It is not quite clear when this poem was written, however, it can be assumed that the majority of Hopkins’ poems were written while in college and when he resumed poetry writing back in 1876. Hopkins in this poem is expressing his feelings in relation to his homosexuality the only way he knew how while respecting the Christian law.

The quotes above are written in poetry style. Hopkins’ work was written to be read by him only until his poet friend decided to publish his work. Hopkins adopted Welsh writing and so his poems reflect “sprung rhythm” as stated in “Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Brief Biography” by Glenn Everett. The kind of vocabulary that is used is end rhymes and lyric in both “Where art thou, friend?” and “To what serves Mortal Beauty”. At the end of each line, the words Hopkins utilized to express his emotions or discuss his situation rhyme. Hopkins also uses some type of figurative language in his work. The kind of imagery that is used appeals to the senses such as sight and touch. Hopkins manages to create imagery in his poem, “To what serves Mortal Beauty”, when he talks about being attracted to attractive people by looking at their face and body.

By doing so, he manages to create an image in the reader’s mind. When I read this, I was able to picture someone whom I thought was attractive in my mind. And it can be assumed that Hopkins was probably also imagining a couple of young males whom he thought were attractive causing his inner conflict. The sentence structure and grammar is similar to today’s writing, so it can be understood better than homosexual poetry from the Elizabethan era. Hopkins’ writing and vocabulary usage in his poems are formal. Although he is writing about himself and his experiences, he does so in a formal way where the reader can take Hopkins serious and almost place oneself in his shoes. His writing was influenced by Walt Whitman. When he tried to publish, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, the Jesuit Magazine rejected his piece because they stated it sounded too similar to Walt Whitman, who again is another homosexual poet. Hopkins remembered reading six poems by Walt Whitman and found that he could not relate more to anyone else than Walt Whitman. Because of Hopkins’ different style of writing poetry, he was recognized for this. He developed his own distinct way of writing poetry. It differs in the sense that Hopkins used “sprung rhythm”. According to the Poetry Foundation, sprung rhythm is defined as, “A metrical system devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins composed of one-to four-syllable feet that starts with a stressed syllable.” This way Hopkins was able to write distinctively and influenced free verse in the 20th century and in this way he was able to break the traditions of poetry through a different rhythm (“Sprung Rhythm”).

The passage represents same-sex love as it discusses how Hopkins, a homosexual, was feeling while living the life of a priest bound by strict laws amid homosexual temptations. He begins by including an example of a religious man, Saint George, who was attracted to two foreign beautiful young males. Saint Gregory was able to spread Christianity because he was enchanted by the beauty of two young men that he had to take them back to England with him. Ironically, Hopkins shows how homosexuality was able to spread religion. And how religious members and influencers can also be attracted to the same sex, and that he was not solo as a religious man who liked other men. In this same poem, Hopkins questions why God would purposefully make males so attractive. He manages to answer this himself by stating that just blissfully staring and taking in the beauty like a breath of fresh air should just make do. One must suppress any desire of acting out on their homosexuality as Hopkins did during his time. In his poem, “Where art thou, friend” Hopkins talks about conceiving or creating someone who is wrong when he states, “Conceiving whom I must conceive amiss?” It can be safely assumed that Hopkins was talking about his sexuality in the sense that he could not love the men he wanted to love because he had to be a straight man physically, but was a true homosexual in his mind and heart. For show, he could only glance and stare, after all, he was a religious man, and was able to abide by Christian rules.

The content is modified by the style in which the passage is written because it allows Hopkins to express more about his personal feelings in a lyrical way. The tone that is perceived in this poem would be gloomy. What is known about Hopkins also modifies what is said because it allows the reader to give meaning to certain words and expressions. It allows the reader to understand that Hopkins lived miserably because he yearned to love men and was not able to. For example, he asks “Where art thou, friend,” in which the reader can modify the meaning to understand that Hopkins is asking about himself. Where is his true self? Creating and giving life to a different character that is wrong to him. A character who is celibate via the body, but not mind and heart. It sounds as if his behavior is submissive, painful, and a lie.

Hopkins was only one of the many homosexuals who existed in the Victorian Era. Hopkins’ depiction of same sex love/sex relates to “then” sources regarding homosexuality in the Victorian Era and previous eras where homosexuality was shunned and discouraged. People who lived during the Victorian era knew about homosexuality, but felt uncomfortable with individuals sharing their “type of sex”, so this is why many homosexuals were hidden. This explains why Hopkins was in a closet having to suppress his same sex attraction. Hopkins was able to hide in the closet through his stringent religious devotion. If we fast forward to the 21st century, Hopkins’ depiction of same sex love differs greatly and opposes many of the social movements in existence today to embrace same sex love/ sex. The 21st century is a century of change and acceptance as many preach the change in terms of sexuality and gender was all about having sex. This can be confirmed with the type of music that is created now during the 21st century which is all about sex and all kinds of sex. Hopkins’ depiction opposes the depiction of same sex in the 21st century as more individuals are “coming out of the closet” instead of staying in the closet. As more and more people embrace homosexuality, homosexuals will come out of the closet because of the sociocultural difference between the 21st century and previous centuries. This opposition anticipates that homosexuality will become normality in the future. Hopkins’ depiction of same sex love was considered the right thing to do since he never lived a life outside the sociocultural norms of the Victorian Era, and if he did, he did so on pen and paper through his poems.

Hopkins’ poems surprised me in the sense that freedom of expression was discouraged during the Victorian era in terms of sexuality. Hopkins tried to convince himself that ultimately God wants all his creations to love each other, yet Hopkins also knows that the way he would like to love is not appropriate. And in turn, Hopkins’ struggle and toil with concealing and resisting his true feelings caused major depression to the point that Hopkins had written his sonnets and was basically in isolation in Dublin. Hopkins was a religious man and he also questioned the fact that human beings were made so attractively as if God was tempting the human norms of loving male and female only. And as often expressed, human beings are God’s creation. It surprised me that Hopkins was able to tame his temptations being attracted to other men. It also surprised me that he found a way to justify his temptations in a religious manner sticking strictly to Christian law. I was also surprised to see that Hopkins was able to live life regardless of the fact that he was lying to himself. The poem “Where art thou, friend” made me emotional. It astonishes me how poetry and Christian law was his way of coping with such isolation and disdain. The ideas expressed in Hopkins’ poems contribute to the development of ideas about gender and sexuality further showing that being a man does not necessarily mean being attracted to the opposite sex. Growing up, learning about sexuality, especially through a Christian household, I always listened about the stringent law of heterosexuality.

Going to church, I also would listen to sermons where God regarded homosexuality as a sin because this not want his ultimate design. The way Hopkins suppressed his homosexuality with religion is not the first case. Sermons at church also deemed that discipline and repenting for such thoughts would save a soul, but clearly, hiding behind religious laws cost Hopkins’ his happiness. This contributes to discourse about sexuality and gender, especially now in the 21st century now that homosexuality or a different perspective on gender are accepted. The 21st century has come to the conclusion that being happy and embracing one’s true identity is ultimately what matters. There have been previous authors, before Hopkins, that have managed to get away with embracing their homosexuality without fear of consequence. Unfortunately, Hopkins represents one of the authors that feared to embrace his love for men, at least he was able to write them down on paper. I believe that is was a nice gesture when Bridges decided to publish Hopkins’ work because this allows individuals who are like Hopkins, religiously driven, to realize that hiding and suppressing only brings suffering and toil, only for that individual, not for society. I have learned that society makes rules and laws, and enforces them because they are afraid of the uncertainty and the unknown. How do you deal with something that is different and unfamiliar to your mind and knowledge? This is the case with previous generations, including the Victorian Era, where homosexuality was something divergent. Reading Hopkins’ poetry would ache my heart because this man just wanted to love and be loved and when he had the opportunity to do so, first of all, his crush dies by drowning, and second of all, he converts to a religion that disapproves of homosexuality.

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Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture. (2021, Jul 05). Retrieved from