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For Hopkins nature was charged with God’s glory

Friday 3rd March 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

For Hopkins nature was charged with God’s glory

Fr Samuel Burke OP

Over recent months, a series of articles in this newspaper has showcased the great treasures of the new Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst.

The Stonyhurst Collections serve to explain, cherish and bring to life the inspiring history of the Christian faith in Britain. This final article explores the inspiration that the beautiful countryside of the Ribble Valley, which surrounds Stonyhurst, provided to the Jesuit priest and poet, Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hopkins’ poetry is highly distinctive in theme. It brims with the conviction that the natural world is, as he put it, “word, expression, news of God.” To look upon creation was, for Hopkins, to see God’s glorious majesty or what he called the ‘inscape’ of things: an aesthetic experience which was “near at hand” for those who “had eyes to see it… it could be called out everywhere again”.

He took delight in seeing things as God made them, however small and commonplace. Confiding in his journal, he once wrote, ‘I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.’

Stonyhurst seen across the fields from the south

In an earlier letter written to a friend whilst he was studying Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, Hopkins provides another insight into his playful curiosity and his deep love of the natural world, strikingly evident in the poetry he would later write: ‘I have particular periods of admiration for particular things in Nature – for a certain time I am astonished at the beauty of a tree, its shape, its effect.

‘Then, when the passions so to speak has subsided, it is consigned to my treasury of explored beauty, while something new takes it place in my enthusiasm.’

And it was a ‘treasury of explored beauty’ that he amply amassed during his three periods at Stonyhurst in Lancashire, even if his poetic output whilst stationed there was relatively modest.

With child-like enthusiasm, Hopkins records in his diary his first experience of the arresting beauty of the place when he first arrived at ‘the seminary’ (properly called St Mary’s Hall, now the Preparatory School at Stonyhurst) as a Jesuit Scholastic in early September 1870, aged 26 for his studies in philosophy.

On the night of his arrival, after being shown to his room at the front of the building on the top floor, Hopkins remained awake until dawn in order to witness the ‘beautiful range of moors dappled with light and shade’, a panoramic view that included the majestic Pendle Hill, which he likens to a ‘world-wielding shoulder’.

Hopkins had arrived at the seminary early, in fact. With the other scholastics on holiday, and classes not due to start until the following month, GMH had the leisure of exploring the spectacular environs of Stonyhurst, which he did with abandon, for as he would write in a later poem ‘…nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’.

He roamed hills, woodlands and Lancashire meadows ‘smeared yellow with buttercups and bright squares of rapefield in the landscape’. Hopkin’s way of seeing the world was deeply influenced by the writings of the Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

A journal entry for 3rd August 1872 records his discovery of Scotus’ Scriptum Oxoniense super Sententiis in the Badeley library on the Isle of Man during a vacation he took from Stonyhurst.

Hopkins describes his find as ‘a mercy from God’ and comments that he was ‘flush with a new stroke of enthusiasm.’ He was to write of his fondness for the theologian in a later poem, Duns Scotus’ Oxford. 

This first stay at St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst, as a Jesuit scholastic, lasted three years (1870-1873). In those days it was an austere regime, which at times proved challenging for the young man. 

Hopkins attended two one hour lectures in the morning and did a further three hours of study from 5 – 8pm. Religious observances and time for recreation were fitted in around these fixed times, and the only permitted conversation was at mealtimes. 

Although he might have expected to become a teacher at one of the Jesuit schools, on completing his philosophy studies, Hopkins was initially sent back to Manresa, the Jesuit Noviciate House at Roehampton, to serve as Professor of Rhetoric, before proceeding to St Bueno’s where he was subsequently ordained as a priest. 

Later, as a priest, he twice returned to Stonyhurst. His second stay was for a His third lasted for just over a year from September 1882 to December 1883, when – though sad to leave – he was called to University College Dublin. On both occasions he taught Classics as a tutor to the Gentlemen Philosophers, a group of Catholic laymen who received their university education at Stonyhurst.

As Catholics were forbidden to take degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, and indeed forbidden from doing so by Catholic bishops, they enrolled for external Bachelors degrees at the University of London. During the time he spent at Stonyhurst, Hopkins continued to deepen his love of the world around him. As part of his interest in God’s created order, Hopkins developed a great interest in astronomical matters, facilitated by the fine observatory at Stonyhurst, which provided research for the Vatican Observatory and is still in use today.

He writes poetic descriptions of the peculiar sunsets he saw there: ‘A bright sunset lines the clouds so that their brims look like gold, brass, bronze, or steel. It fetches out those dazzling flecks and spangles which people call fish-scales. It gives to a mackerel or dappled cloudrack the appearance of quilted crimson silk, or a ploughed field glazed with crimson ice.’

It wasn’t just the sun which caught his attention. He would find beauty — “the grandeur of God” — in all manner of places, some of them fairly unlikely. Stories abound of his eccentric behaviour at Stonyhurst, such as the time when he hung over a frozen pond to observe bubbles trapped beneath the ice or was seen staring at the gravel outside St Mary’s Hall.

Hopkins had a particular love for “the three beautiful rivers” near Stonyhurst. One of them, the Calder, runs close to the nearby remains of a Cistercian monastery, Whalley Abbey. Another, the River Hodder, sits beneath the school in a thick wood and was used by Hopkins and others for bathing, even if precarious after heavy rainfall. 

The third and most significant of these rivers, the River Ribble, gives its name to the Ribble Valley, the wider expanse that surrounds Stonyhurst and the eponymous poem, Ribblesdale, one of at least five poems which Hopkins wrote during his stays at Stonyhurst. 

The poem tells how nature cannot speak for itself but must find its voice through a human translator, as it were. And, as the following verses demonstrate, few voices were as finely tuned as that of Hopkins:

The River Hodder, well known to Hopkins

Earth, sweet Earth, sweet landscape,
with leavés throng
And louchéd low grass, heaven
that dost appeal
To, with no tongue to plead,
no heart to feel;
That canst but only be, but dost
that long
Thou canst but be, but that thou
well dost;strong
Thy plea with him who dealt, nay
does now deal,
Thy lovely dale down thus and
thus bids reel
Thy river, and o’er gives all to
rack or wrong.
And what is Earth’s eye, tongue,
or heart else, where
Else, but in dear and dogged man?
– Ah, the heir
To his own selfbent so bound,so
tied to his turn,
To thriftless reave both our rich
round world bare
And none reck of world after,
this bids wear
Earth brows of such care, care
and dear concern.

Other poems he wrote at Stonyhurst comprise: The Wreck of the Eurydice, with resonances of his earlier and more confessional Wreck of the Deutschland; The May Magnificat and The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe – two poems in honour of Our Lady, whose image was and remains prominent in various statues inside the building and grounds; as well as The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo. In that poem, Hopkins confronts the dreadful reality of the loss and decay of the beauty that he holds dear:

How to keep—is there any any, is
there none such, nowhere known some,
bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace,
latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty,
beauty, … from vanishing away?

As the poem progresses, Hopkins proceeds to take solace in the beauty that lies ‘yonder’ in God, who is ‘beauty’s self and beauty’s giver’.

In the midst of a world marked by loss and decay, a walk in the countryside can do us untold good lifting our spirits as such rambles did for Hopkins.

The Christian Heritage Centre is establishing a Hopkins’ walking route around Stonyhurst in his memory to accompany the Tolkien Trail, already available.

On such pleasant walks, we can gaze upon the beauty around us and can say with Hopkins: ‘I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes / Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour’.

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A life of exploration led Waterton to discover the need to preserve nature

Friday 2nd June 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

A life of exploration led Waterton to discover the need to preserve nature

Stonyhurst College is renowned for its impressive collections of art, medieval manuscripts, Catholic artefacts, vestments and relics, displayed throughout the school and in its three libraries, home to some 60,000 books including a First Folio of Shakespeare.

What is less well know is that the College also houses many nationally and internationally significant Natural History collections, which reflect important 19th century developments in science and medicine.

Charles Waterton was a pupil at Stonyhurst College in the late 1790s. He came from a landed gentry family descended from numerous saints, including Vladimir the Great, Saint Anna of Russia, Saint Stephen of Hungary, Saint Margaret of Scotland and Saint Thomas More. 

The family remained staunchly Catholic after the Reformation and as a result forfeited much of their land and wealth, leaving them only Walton Hall near Wakefield. While at Stonyhurst, the young Waterton’s interest in exploration and wildlife was already evident and the Jesuit teachers encouraged him to explore while attending to his studies at the same time.

The painting of Charles Waterton riding on a cayman

They came to an unusual compromise with the 11-year-old boy, as he noted in his autobiography: ‘By a mutual understanding, I was considered rat-catcher to the establishment, and also fox-taker, foumart-killer, and cross-bow charger at the time when the young rooks were fledged. I followed up my calling with great success. The vermin disappeared by the dozen; the books were moderately well-thumbed and according to my notion of things, all went on perfectly right.’

In 1804 he travelled to Guyana to take charge of his uncle’s estates near Georgetown. In 1812 he started to explore the interior of the country, and reached Brazil having walked barefoot in the rainy season. He described his natural history discoveries in his book Waterton’s Wanderings in South America, published in 1821.

Waterton was a skilled taxidermist and preserved many of the animals he encountered on his expeditions for study by scientists and naturalists back in Britain. He employed a unique method of taxidermy, soaking the specimens in what he called ‘sublimate of mercury’, a highly toxic chemical.

 Unlike many traditionally stuffed animals, his specimens are hollow and lifelike. Some specimens displayed his anarchic sense of humour, as he created animals which resembled those with whom he disagreed, such as the Hanoverian monarchy, Martin Luther and an unnamed English Customs official who charged him excessive duty to bring his specimens into the country. 

Other creations reflect his affection for his Jesuit teachers, including a large crab holding a crucifix, beside which is a poem written by Waterton telling the story of the crab that returned St Francis Xavier’s crucifix when he dropped it in the sea in Goa. 

The crab holding a crucifix

Many hundreds of these remarkable animals are preserved to this day at Stonyhurst College, along with a remarkable painting showing Waterton riding on a cayman

Charles Waterton is credited with bringing the anaesthetic agent curare to Europe. In London, with Fellows of the Royal Society, he immobilised several animals, including a cat and a mule, with the substance which he called wourali, after the Guyanan name for the poison where it was used to hunt animals for food. The mule was renamed Wouralia and lived for years at Walton Hall as a local celebrity. This was the first recorded use of a muscle relaxant in a medical context, and was the basis for modern anaesthesia.

Waterton was keen to learn about all manner of poisons, collecting snakes and tarantulas, and used his own body in experiments to discover their effects. He longed to be bitten by a vampire bat, and slept in the rainforest with his feet sticking out of his hammock in the vain hope that the creatures would find them irresistible. He was a passionate conserver of nature, and spent the equivalent of £1million building a nine-foot-high wall around three miles of his estate at Walton Hall, turning it into the world’s first wildfowl and nature reserve.

David Attenborough has described him as a champion of nature conservation and “one of the first people anywhere to recognise, not only that the natural world was of great importance, but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it”. Waterton was a vehement opponent of slavery, finding the practice inhuman and utterly repellent to his strong Catholic faith. By an extraordinary coincidence one of the slaves with whom Waterton worked in Guyana was to have a significant influence on one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 19th century

A large preserved jungle spider

John Edmonstone was a black slave, the property of Charles Edmonstone, an expatriate Scot who owned plantations in Guyana. He learned taxidermy from Charles Waterton, who had married Anne, Charles Edmonstone’s daughter.

 John accompanied Waterton on his expeditions into the rainforest to collect animals, learning how to preserve the skins to prevent their decomposition. In 1807 John Edmonstone was freed, and came to Scotland with his former master. He moved to Edinburgh where he taught taxidermy to students at Edinburgh University. 

Charles Darwin came to Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine, but found himself unsuited for the study of human anatomy and surgery. During his first winter at Edinburgh, Darwin hired Edmonstone to teach him taxidermy for one guinea a week. Edmonstone gave Charles Darwin inspiring accounts of tropical rain forests in South America and may have encouraged Darwin to explore there. Certainly the taxidermy Darwin learned from Edmonstone helped him greatly during the voyage of the SS Beagle, and arguably he might have never embarked on the historic journey without Edmonstone’s mentorship

He spent his childhood in Brussels, where his father was Austrian envoy to Belgium, and moved to England in 1867. As a Catholic, von Hügel was ineligible for entry to Cambridge and Oxford and was educated through Stonyhurst College’s undergraduate programme, where he read Philosophy.

Suffering from bad health, he was advised to travel to a warmer climate and embarked on a trip to the South Pacific in 1874. He collected and recorded whatever information and objects he could find. Entranced by the beauty of Fiji, he learned the language, although his passion for collecting led him into difficulties and he was more than once rescued by the governor who described him as ‘half starved, having spent all his money, and having even cut the buttons off his clothes in exchange for native ornaments’. Back in England, in 1883 von Hügel was appointed curator of the new Museum of General and Local Archaeology in Cambridge, which is now the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 

He was a surprising choice. Although his scholarship was well known by this time, he was a foreigner and Catholic. Throughout his life he devoted himself to Catholic causes and when Catholics were once more eligible for entry to Cambridge and Oxford in 1895, he immediately founded, together with Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, a hall of residence in Cambridge. 

Established in 1896, St Edmund’s College soon became the preferred college for Catholic students and scholars in Cambridge and now also houses a research institute named after von Hügel. Founded in 1987, the Von Hügel Institute is a Roman Catholic research institute dedicated to the study of the relationship of Christianity