Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Gerard Manley Hopkins on advocacy and pests



One of the perennial challenges facing any serious person is to be faithful when advocating for the rights of small and isolated groups in society. Think of people coming to Australia to seek protection, children acting antisocially, or Indigenous Australians in remote communities. To persevere you must keep seeing the members of the group as persons, each unique and each deserving of respect by virtue of their simple humanity, and so not to be treated as means to others' ends.

Gerard Manley Hopkins portraitYou must also reckon with the fact that the majority of people in society do not see them as such, but simply as indistinguishable members of a group who can be treated indiscriminately as the objects of policy. And finally, you must recognise that your efforts may be unavailing.

This difficulty can breed discouragement in which your commitment to respect the rights of people in the group weakens. You will also be tempted to accept as respectful slight ameliorations of brutality at the risk of eroding your commitment to respect.

An antidote to this, of course, is regularly to meet and appreciate the company of people in the communities you support. By doing so you keep fresh the vision of a humanity shared by all people, the right to respect of each human being, and the outrage of disrespect. You also recognise that this vision is a gift that needs to be nurtured. It is not to be taken for granted. Nurturing means finding strong and attractive words in which to express the vision, and becoming sensitive to the lazy abstractions and false alternatives in which conventional wisdom is expressed.

It might seem strange to turn to the poetic journey of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to illustrate this point. He was a Jesuit teacher who lived a reclusive life, troubled by deep depression. But good poetry always deepens your vision of the world.

His poetry seemed odd to his few contemporaries familiar with it. His condensed expression, rhythms and intensity set him apart from the more expansive style and expression of his fellow Victorian poets. They were confidently universal in their thought and expression, sharing the self-confident and lofty perspective to which Empire entitled them.

Underlying Hopkins' experiments with diction and rhythm lay a non-negotiable commitment to represent beings in their particularity. He reacted against the emphasis on the universal and the abstract in literature, theology and thought to catch and celebrate the particular. The commitment to 'inscape' was radical, and its challenge is patent in his poetry.


"Like good poetry sustained advocacy requires and defies a lifetime of attentiveness."


In one of his more condensed poems, 'Tom's Garland: upon the Unemployed', Hopkins develops the image of society (commonweal) as a body in which the sovereign is head with wealth and the cares of responsibility, and manual workers are the feet with modest food and lodging but freedom from large cares. His description of workers returning from their work in hobnailed boots is vivid and concrete:

Tom — garlanded with squat and surly steel
Tom; then Tom's fallowbootfellow piles pick
By him and rips out rockfire homeforth — sturdy Dick;
Tom Heart-at-ease, Tom Navvy: he is all for his meal
Sure, 's bed now.

In the conclusion of the poem he turns to the unemployed who have no guarantee of food or lodging but are burdened with great cares. In them the commonweal and its implicit guarantee of mutual support has broken down, and with these pillars the contentment and security necessary for society to flourish. Again the language is concrete, social dysfunction imagined in concrete images

Undenizened, beyond bound
Of earth's glory, earth's ease; all; no one, nowhere,
In wide the world's weal; rare gold, bold steel, bare
In both; care, but share care —
This by Despair, bred Hangdog dull; by rage,
Manwolf, worse, and their packs infest the age.

Though Hopkins' language is concrete, his judgment is based in the categorisation and condemnation of people as groups. This is evident in his explanatory comments about the poem:

'The curse of our times is that many do not share it (the common weal), that they are outcasts from it and have neither security nor splendour; that they share care with the high and obscurity with the low, but wealth or comfort with neither. And this state of things, say, is the origin of Loafers, Tramps, Cornerboys, Roughs, Socialists and other pests of society.'

The reason for drawing attention to this generic characterisation of people as pests is not to condemn Hopkins, but to recognise how difficult it is for poets or lesser human beings to focus consistently on the particularity of each human being, let alone of each being in the world. Yet this is a necessary condition for recognising the claim that each person and the world make on humanity of all people make on us. It is no wonder that we falter in commitment. Like good poetry sustained advocacy requires and defies a lifetime of attentiveness.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Gerard Manley Hopkins



submit a comment

Existing comments

All poets share a particular gift. They are apart in a particular way. Hopkins has been described as an "immortal diamond" and those who read his poetry can but agree. From "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection": "I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and/This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,/Is immortal diamond." I'm sure I am not the only one who finds comfort, and more than a little joy, in his difficult brilliance. Like each and every one of us, his is a unique voice.

Pam | 25 November 2019  

It would have to be one of the great human tragedies that GMH in the depths of his depression midst a gloomy Welsh winter landscape burnt the bulk of his poetry.

john frawley | 26 November 2019  

I was unaware that GMH suffered depression. In his day this would've been a bit like death: something never mentioned. Obviously, what appears to be genuine, clinical, long term depression, as Andrew Robb recently so bravely spoke of, would have had a tremendous effect on his life. These days one would hope that he would seek appropriate medical treatment. The Catholic Church, very wisely, differentiates between mental illness and religious experience.

Edward Fido | 26 November 2019  

These days we have so many challenges in all directions to see the particularity of each human being. So many outsiders are defined and labelled in ways which distance us from each one of them. In distancing ourselves from them we try to avoid their pain. Thanks for reminding us that we must accept your challenge Andy to keep fresh the vision of their humanity by turning towards those we support. It is easy to write the cheque, sign the petition. It is much harder to look into the faces of the individual who is suffering and to be truly present.

Jo | 26 November 2019  

As much as I appreciate the point made by AH, this, to quote an paraphrase, is an incredibly brave assertion. Referring to “...Socialists and other pests of society” illustrates ...the difficulty of focusing “...on the particularity of each human being...” In any other context this would be called special pleading.

Paul Smith | 01 December 2019  

Similar Articles

Patients' pain is real, and so is medical bias

  • Neve Mahoney
  • 28 November 2019

This bias continues to be so prevalent not only because medicine is a reflection of society, but because medicine was created with cisgender white neurotypical able-bodied men as the baseline. Those underlying assumptions are still baked into medical systems and filter down to all aspects of medicine.


Righting the wrongs of robodebt

  • Darren O'Donovan
  • 27 November 2019

The uncertainties are not ended by last week's announcement. The statement only vaguely signals that the Department will 'work' with recipients to identify 'further proof points'. What constitutes a 'proof point'? The government needs to disavow its past conduct in a much deeper, detailed and clear way. Instead, it has gone silent.