Title: THE CURIOUS CASE OF ROBERT SOUTHWELL, GERARD HOPKINS AND A PRINCELY SPANISH HAWK ,  By: Bouchard, Gary M., Renascence, 00344346, Spring99, Vol. 51, Issue 3
Database: MasterFILE Premier

IN 1962 Mother Mary Eleanor, S.H.C.J. published a short article entitled "Hopkins' 'Windhover' and Southwell's Hawk" in which she called "attention to a curiously parallel image in a little known book of meditations by Robert Southwell (1561-1595) on the Love of God" (21). Mother Eleanor's modest claim was that the image of Christ as a hawk in flight from "Meditation 56" of Southwell's A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God "may or may not provide a clue to the source of Hopkins' image; but it at least reinforces one's sense of the appropriateness of such an image, since it has occurred to another poet, formed in the same school of spirituality and arrested by the same fact of Christ's redeeming action" (21). This provocative discovery of Mother Eleanor's, a peculiar Renaissance needle in the vast haystack of literary influence, has been little heeded, scholarly readings of "The Windhover" having proceeded for the past thirty-five years as though her suggestion had never been made. This may be in part due to the considerable modesty with which she presented her case, but is attributable as well, no doubt, to the fact that she offered no external evidence to suggest how or why Hopkins, as a young nineteenth-century Jesuit, might have come to read, let alone borrow from, these little known meditations of his beheaded sixteenth-century Jesuit predecessor. How, in other words, did Hopkins stumble upon this same "needle" and who exactly put it in the haystack? I intend here to address these questions by considering an as yet unnoticed coincidence which connects the nineteenth century publication of A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God with Gerard Hopkins, and demonstrates the likelihood that Hopkins not only read at least some of the Meditations, but may have been guided in his reading by its editor, Father John Morris, S.J. who, as it turns out, would soon be one of Hopkins' professors, as well as one of the few Jesuits to encourage Hopkins in his own efforts as a poet. Having presented this connection between Hopkins and the Meditations' editor, I then wish to return to the parallel imagery of "The Windhover" and Southwell's "Meditation 56," to argue Mother Eleanor's case afresh.

Let us begin with the peculiar history of A Hundred Meditations Upon the Love of God. Immediately after Robert Southwell's trial and gruesome public death in 1595 there followed, ironically, a prolific publication of his poetic works:

The first editions of the poems in 1595 followed immediately upon the execution of Southwell in February. The popular demand for the poetry reflects the extraordinary response of the London crowd to Southwell himself. The first edition of Saint Peters Complaint, With Other Poems, appearing probably in March, was followed by a second edition before some of the type for the first edition had been distributed. When Gabriel Cawood secured the copyright in April and started his series of editions, he may have been confident that he had obtained the rights to a commercial success. (Poems lv)

By 1636 Saint Peter's Complaint With Other Poems, accompanied by a now famous dedicatory epistle, had been printed in London no fewer than eleven times. Nonetheless, A Hundred Meditations Upon the Love of God, which in its published form comprises some 538 pages of prose, survived unpublished and presumably unread in one transcribed copy at Stonyhurst College until 1873.

THE person responsible for rescuing A Hundred Meditations from oblivion was Father John Morris, S.J., Lecturer of Ecclesiastical History at St. Bueno's Seminary in Wales, who, trusting in the "Transcriber's Dedication,"(n1) believed incorrectly that he was bringing to light an extraordinary work of original recusant prose. In fact, however, the Hundred Meditations are not Southwell's original work, but an English translation which he made from an Italian version of a Spanish work, Meditaciones devotissimas amor Dios written by a Franciscan Friar, Fray Diego de Estella and published in Salamanca in 1576.(n2) It is likely that Southwell translated an Italian version of Diego's work in order to help regain his competence in English after a decade on the continent. Whether Southwell knew that his Italian version of these meditations was a translation of Diego's Spanish work, or what his particular attraction to these meditations was, we can never know.

What is important to our present argument is not that Southwell's work was original, but that Father Morris believed that it was, and described it to his readers with a zeal appropriate to that belief. He wrote in his Preface:

The interest of these Meditations is greatly enhanced by the recollection that it is a Martyr, at whose intercourse with God we are present. It is a revelation to us of the interior union with God of a brave heart that aspired to and attained martyrdom .... In these Meditations, then, we see into a Martyr's heart, or rather... see the thoughts by which the heart was made heroic and apt for the great sacrifice of martyrdom. It was filled with the love of God. Everything spoke to it of the Love of God. It drew the love of God to itself from all around, and in its meditation all creatures, instead of weakening, helped to strengthen its love of God. (A Hundred Meditations vii-viii)

One of Morris' motivations for publishing A Hundred Meditations, in fact, was to help "hasten the day when the Martyrs to whom we owe our inheritance shall receive their honors from the Church to which they were loyal unto death" (x). Southwell, along with the other English martyrs of the sixteenth-century recusant movement to whom Fr. Morris refers, would eventually be canonized, but not for another hundred years.

As for Morris' edition of A Hundred Meditations, it remains the only one to have ever been published, and while regarded until fairly recently as Southwell's original work, its audience has been comprised of, shall we say, a devout few. Extant copies of the text remain only in private collections, selected religious houses and in fewer than two dozen libraries world-wide. In fact, the greatest impact of Morris' unenviable labor may have been the unintentional spawning of Hopkins' extraordinary sonnet, "The Windhover" which the poet himself regarded as one of his finest poems. Just what do we know then about Fr. Morris and his eccentric pupil, Gerard Hopkins.

At the time at which Morris' edition of A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God was published, and during the previous three years while he was presumably working with the original manuscript at Stonyhurst, Gerard Hopkins was studying in the Jesuit Philosophate at St. Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst (1870-1873). That the two men would have met and conversed in some manner during this time seems quite possible as there were only thirty-five residents at St. Mary's Hall, including the three priests. That Morris may have brought to the young poet's attention his work upon what he believed were Robert Southwell's A Hundred Meditations is likewise possible since Morris admired Southwell's poetry, and, with Hopkins' composition of "Ad Mariam" at Stonyhurst, his own talent as a poet, or at the very least his interest in poetry, was known among his fellow Jesuits there. In any case, even if Morris and Hopkins completely escaped one another's notice at this time, they would meet three years later in Wales when Morris was now Hopkins' professor for both Canon Law as well as Ecclesiastical History at St. Beuno's.(n3)

By this time, biographer Norman White suggests, "Hopkins must have been known to his colleagues as a poet. This reputation probably [having] followed him from Stonyhurst where he had written the Marian poems, and 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' would of course be known to the Rector" (262). What White does not mention is just what a very peculiar reputation "poet" would have been for Hopkins to have acquired among his fellow Jesuits, the order not being exactly overcrowded with would-be laureates. In a letter to R. W. Dixon in 1881, Hopkins himself would describe the scant Jesuit literary presence which preceded him:

We have had for three centuries often the flower of the youth of a country in numbers enter our body: among these how many poets, how many artists of all sorts, there must have been! But there have been very few Jesuit poets and, where they have been, I believe it would be found on examination that there was something exceptional in their circumstances or, so to say, counterbalancing in their career. (Correspondence 92)

Hopkins then mentions three Jesuit poets:

Fr. Beschi who in Southern Hindustan composed an epic which has become one of the Tamul classics and is spoken of with unbounded admiration by those who can read it .... In England we had Fr. Southwell a poet, a minor poet but still a poet; but he wrote amidst terrible persecution and died a martyr, with circumstances of horrible barbarity: this is the counterpoise of his career. Then what a genius was Campion himself! Was not he a poet? Perhaps a great one, if he had chosen. (Correspondence 94)

Since Campion did not choose to write poetry, and Beschi was Indian, Hopkins, by his own reckoning, is left with but one English Jesuit literary predecessor, Robert Southwell.

One other person who would be keenly aware that the English Jesuits had but one poet to speak of would, of course, have been Fr. Morris who refers in his Preface to "Mr. Grosart's admirable edition of Father Southwell's Poetical Works" (A Hundred Meditations v)(n4) which was published in 1872, the year before his own edition of the Hundred Meditations. What Morris thought about Hopkins' poetry is suggested by an incident in 1876. For fittingly, this champion of Southwell's works was also responsible for the first and only printing of a Hopkins poem during Hopkins' own lifetime, "The Silver Jubilee."(n5) In 1876 Fr. Morris had preached a special sermon on the occasion of Bishop James Brown's Jubilee visit to St. Beuno's that year. The sermon, the Bishop's address and the poem Hopkins composed for the occasion were subsequently published together in a pamphlet at the Bishop's request. When "Hopkins had protested against his poem being included... Fr. Morris had gracefully persuaded him that he needed its publication in order to entitle the sermon 'The Silver Jubilee'" (White 262). This incident may have been as simple and pragmatic as it sounds, although it suggests a tactful and sympathetic mentoring of the young poet away from excessive modesty and towards publication. It is, in any case, the small sum of what we know for certain about the relationship between Fr. Morris and Gerard Hopkins.

A year after writing "The Silver Jubilee" Hopkins would write "The Windhover." Before turning to the resemblances of this poem to "Meditation 56," we should note that from the 538 pages which comprise A Hundred Meditations, Fr. Morris offers a sampling of only five brief passages in his Preface, and the longest of these by far, and the one to which he gives the most attention, is the passage of the regal hawk in flight compared to Christ from "Meditation 56." Hence, Hopkins would not have had to read beyond Morris' Preface to discover this unusual metaphor. Although circumstantial, this evidence indicates that Hopkins may well have had his attention drawn to these meditations by Fr. Morris.

As to Hopkins' famous poem, it is easy to see why "The Windhover" was his favorite composition in what was a very creative year for the poet (White 282), and why many regard it as his single best poem, if for no other reason because of its extraordinary structural and formal characteristics. Never before or since, I think, has so much movement, rhythm, sound and emotion been so masterfully orchestrated within the confines of an Italian sonnet. Even so, a paraphrase of the poem's action is quite ordinary: an exuberant narrator admires the graceful flight and sudden descent of a kestrel. The poem's provocative dedication, "To Christ Our Lord," however, invites, perhaps requires, the reader to see the flight of the small bird with the same symbolic significance and accompanying excitement as the narrator:

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of
daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his Ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the
hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,--the achieve of, the mastery of thing!

If one insists upon reading this poem only as an extraordinary nature meditation, echoes of "Meditation 56" might be heard, though not significantly, as in "When the eagle-falcon, or ger-falcon, or any other kind of long-winged hawk, hath flown a high pitch, and skimming through the air hath mounted up to the clouds..." From this description may have been derived the more striking "rung upon the reign of a wimpling wing" or the sweep of a skate's heel. But Hopkins, a keen observer of nature would need no primer on how to describe a hawk's flight.

If, on the other hand, one follows the prompting of the poet's dedication "To Christ Our Lord" and understands the flight as representative of Christ's own mastery of his destiny and ours, the potential significance of Fray Diego de Estella's "Meditation 56" as translated by Robert Southwell and published by Morris may be seen and heard in earnest. The passage from the meditation which Morris quotes in his Preface is as eloquent a summary of the religious meaning of "The Windhover" as any ever rendered:

O Princely Hawk! which comest down from Heaven into the bowels of the Blessed Virgin, and from her womb unto the earth, and from the earth unto the desert, and from the desert unto the Cross, and from the Cross unto hell, and from hell unto Heaven, and madest those turnings to pursue our souls which Thou wert losing, and which without Thy helping hand had perished, is it much that Thou requirest our heart for reward of the travail and pains that Thou hast done to work our redemption? What hawk ever made such a brave flight, or lost so much blood in the pursuit of her game, as the salvation of our souls hath cost Thee, our God and our Lord? (A Hundred Meditations ix-x)

"O" we wait for Diego, via Southwell, to declare "my Chevalier!" For the parallel imagery between the two passages includes, not just the comparable flights of the hawks, but the awe at the hawk's regality and the consequent recognition of Christ's own kingship in the masterful flight. The essential spiritual movement of the two passages, in fact, is identical: the brave and redemptive life of the princely Christ witnessed in the flight and fall of a hawk, prompting the consequent stirring of the observer's heart.

The climactic spiritual awakening in Hopkins' poem, the inexplicably lovely fire which breaks from the kestrel at the moment of buckling, also has a precedent in Fray Diego's "Meditation 56." Consider first the opening three lines of Hopkins' sestet by which he arrives, in the last three words, at his famous version of "O Princely hawk!"

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

Now consider what might pass for a prose paraphrase of these very lines rendered into English by Southwell some two hundred eighty years earlier:

And is it much, O Lord, that I should offer unto Thy Divine Majesty my heart inflamed in Thy holy love, seeing that Thou, my God, didst so burn upon the Cross with the fire of infinite love, whereon Thou didst put Thyself for my sake and for love of me, insomuch that there sprinkled out so many flames of fire from the sacred breast as there were wounds in Thy most sacred body? (A Hundred Meditations 282)

The inflamed heart and the fire are themselves conventional religious images, but the "sprinkled out... flames of fire" within the context of the hawk's flight bear a persuasive resemblance, I think, to Hopkins' "fire that breaks from thee then" (line 10) which becomes in the poem's memorable final image: "blue-bleak embers" which "Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion" (13-14).

Since the above passage from "Meditation 56" does not appear in Morris' Preface, Hopkins would have had to turn to the meditation himself, prompted, if he did so, by the passage in Morris' Preface, and believing that the words which he read there were those of Fr. Robert Southwell, the only English Jesuit poet to precede him.

IT may be that the comparison of the redemptive life of Christ to the flight of a hawk, though novel to us, was in Hopkins' day a somewhat more conventional part of religious imagery which has since been lost, leaving behind a poem which seems more eccentric and original than it is. It is likewise possible that the imagery and imbedded spiritual argument of "The Windhover" are entirely the product of Gerard Manley Hopkins' experience of observing a kestrel in Wales and his own poetic fancy. Yet all works of art, and especially great ones, are, in some fashion, an imaginative compilation of certain things which have come before them. In the exclamation "ah my dear," of the poem's second to last line, for example, Norman White hears Hopkins borrowing from his favorite poet, George Herbert (White 283). My own suggestion is that the poem contains a much more substantial borrowing than these three words, that, unbeknownst to Gerard Hopkins or Mother Eleanor, "The Windhover" owes its origins to a sixteenth-century Spanish writer via two of Hopkins' brother Jesuits, Fr. Southwell who accomplished this, his most significant work of translation,(n6) in virtual house arrest, and Fr. Morris who worked in immediate proximity to his future pupil, Gerard Hopkins, to bring to publication what he believed to be the original work of an important English poet and Jesuit predecessor.

The implications of the above case of influence should be of some interest to readers of Hopkins. In the first place, if Hopkins did read "Meditation 56," he may also have read some, though likely not all, of the other Hundred Meditations On the Love of God in Morris' edition. Certainly the first two meditations, stirring canticles to creation and the creator, would have engaged Hopkins' sensibilities and drawn him in, and Diego's Franciscan-inspired love of nature, which is apparent in the imagery of nearly all the meditations, may well have had particular appeal to Hopkins. Since Hopkins never mentions A Hundred Meditations specifically in either his journals or correspondence, any other cases of influence must rest upon the external evidence I have presented here and any notable similarities between the two authors' texts. One other implication of the above argument is that Gerard Hopkins, as Jesuit poet, may have found in the example of Southwell and the encouragement of Morris something of a respite from the artistic isolation in which we have grown accustomed to imagine him. Whether or not this was the case, I hope, at the very least, to have demonstrated in this essay that the stirring imagery of "The Windhover" has a more richly textured presence and history than has heretofore been recognized by Hopkins' scholars. The needle which Mother Eleanor discovered in the literary haystack back in 1962 is, I believe, a significant (and significantly complex) one, far richer in its Spanish origins and its Italian and Elizabethan reconfigurations than she, or Fr. Morris, or Gerard Manley Hopkins himself had imagined.


(n1) Morris cannot be blamed for trusting himself to the claims of transcriber who was him/herself but making an honest mistake. The Dedication reads as follows: "TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE AND VIRTUOUS LADY, THE LADY BEAUCHAMP. Noble Lady,--Having long had in my custody the original of these ensuing discourses, written with Mr. Robert Southwell's own hand (a gentleman for his holy life and happy death of eternal memory), and knowing certainly that he especially wrote and meant to have printed them for your holy mother's devotion, singularly by him honoured and affected, I have, in an eminent esteem which I profess myself to have of your virtuous and noble worth, moved also thereunto by one of your noblest and nearest kinswomen, presumed to make your honour partaker of such a treasury of devout discourses..." (A Hundred Meditations Upon the Love of God xix).

(n2) Fray Diego de Estella, whose worldly name was Diego Ballesteros y Cruzas, lived from 1524-1578. He is known, though not admired, for his authorship of Meditaciones devotissimas amor Dios. The work is regarded as an example of the sort of popular mystical works which were common at this time, primarily doctrinal rather than apologetic. His Meditaciones are filled with the abundant nature revelry typical of Franciscan spirituality.

(n3) See Catalogus Provinciae Angliae Societatis Jesu (Roehampton: Typographia Sancti Joseph, 1875), p. 10: "P. Joannes Morris, Lect. hist. eccl ...." and Catalogus Provinciae Angliae Societatis Jesu (Roehampton: Typographia Sancti Joseph, 1876), p. 10: "P. Joannes Morris, Lect. jur. can. et hist. eccl ...." I am grateful to Father Joseph Feeney, S.J. for securing this data on my behalf. Though we have no description of Fr. Morris as a lecturer, we are told of his reading of his Italian colleague, Fr Perini's lectures in English in the evenings (Alfred Thomas, S.J., Hopkins the Jesuit: The Years of Training, 1969).

(n4) The edition to which Morris refers is Alexander Grosart's The Complete Poems of Robert Southwell (1872) which was the first collected edition of Southwell's poetry.

(n5) Says Norman White: "It was the first work he had published since entering the Society of Jesus, and it was also the only serious complete English poem written after he became a Jesuit which he would ever see in print" (White 262).

(n6) This according to Nancy Pollard Brown, editor of The Poems of Robert Southwell and of a forthcoming collection of his complete prose works.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The Three Crosses (Engraving) (Dutch); Hendrik Gotzius (1558-1617) Copyright 1999 Haggerty Museum of Art (83.32.15) Marquette University Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Sidney M. Boxer

Works Cited

Eleanor, Mother Mary, S.H.C.J. "Hopkins' 'Windhover' and Southwell's Hawk." Renascence 15.1 (Fall 1962): 21-22, 27.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon. Ed. Claude Colleer Abbott. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1935.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. Norman Mackenzie. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Southwell, Robert. A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God. Ed. John Morris, S.J. London: Bums and Oates, 1873.

Southwell, Robert. The Poems of Robert Southwell. Ed. James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

White, Norman. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.


By Gary M. Bouchard