Hopkins was the greatest writer on nature of his age. His complexity of rhythm and philosophical subject made him an anomaly in the nineteenth century and even his closest friends found his poetry too demanding. He was a complex and solitary man, who never managed to reconcile his love of nature with his love of God. In his nature poems we find a primal lusting for the raw and unfettered, whereas in his religious poetry Hopkins is always subordinate to a God who shows him little mercy. Hopkins converted to Catholicism at Oxford and became a Jesuit priest, adhering to an existence of strict asceticism. We find amongst his work some of the most brilliant evocations of nature, some truly heartbreaking moments of spiritual anguish, and some awfully bad poetry. What is certain is that Hopkins was one of the most creative and unique talents of the nineteenth century, who influenced writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney.
Whilst he stopped writing poetry on entering into the Church, Hopkins kept a detailed record of his experiences in nature. Using the philosophical teachings of the thirteenth century Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus, Hopkins looked for signs of the existence of God in nature. Hopkins had a complex theory of 'inscape', which represented the inner essence of all living things. He attempted to capture the nature of this 'inscape' in his poetry. In order for us to sense this 'inscape', it is necessary when reading Hopkins to pay particular attention to the way in which he uses rhythm (see the section on 'Sprung Rhythm' later) and the natural onomatopoeia in language to recreate the essence of his subjects. Often Hopkins fails to completely master this 'inscape', or ruins its effect by bringing religion into the poem and turning an evocation of nature into moral didacticism. However, one need only read "The Starlight Night", "Spelt From Sybil's Leaves", or "Pied Beauty" to see that Hopkins' feel for the fundamental nature of God's world is second to none.
Hopkins' most famous poems are: "The Wreck of the Deutschland" - a long poem drawing the comparison between the death of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck and Hopkins' conversion to Catholicism; "The Windhover" - Hopkins captures the 'inscape' of a falcon early in the morning and relates its soaring majesty to the joy he feels when communing with God; "Felix Randal" - an elegy to a member of Hopkins' parish, a farrier whose physical strength Hopkins admired, and "Carrion Comfort", the first and most famous of Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets, written during the last years of his life and representing the poet's struggle against the spectre of despair. "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is to many the quintessence of Hopkins' skill, brilliantly capturing the bird on a summer's day, whilst at the same time relating the temporal world to the eternal, using the kingfisher to teach us about ourselves and about God.