Lifesaving Poems: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘No worst, there is none’


I treated myself to Seth Godin‘s newish book The Icarus Deception recently. It is both dense and light, profound and easy to read. Usually I put it down crying.

The premise of the book is that the old industrial model of working and living (you go to school, get qualifications, then do a job like millions of others) is over. In its place is the ‘connection economy’ where, thanks to advances in technology, individuals now have an unrivalled opportunity to connect with each other across the globe. The shorthand he uses for this is ‘being an artist’ and ‘making art’.

The book is called The Icarus Deception because the part of the Icarus myth we forget is that he was also warned by his father not to fly too low.

I have just got to the bit where he talks about the mindset necessary to make art that connects with people: resilience, detachment, passion, commitment and vulnerability. And somehow this got me thinking about one of my first poetic heroes, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I studied Hopkins at A level and then at university, in a kind of rapt but puzzled delight.

We learned on day one that his poems were radically different from what others were publishing at the time; most were not accepted for publication during his lifetime. We learned that he was a Jesuit priest and loved to find God in nature. We also learned that he had one friend, Robert Bridges, famous in his lifetime but whose chief claim to fame now rests on his promotion of Hopkins’s poetry after his death.

His religious faith seemed to cause him anxiety as much as it did delight. Were he alive now we would probably say he was bipolar.

It seems inconceivable to me that any poet starting out now in contemporary Britain would opt for the conditions Hopkins lived under, namely: solitude verging on loneliness; periods of intense depression; and, worst of all, complete lack of recognition for his art.

Think of all the things we take for granted in the connection economy, the prizes, the mentoring schemes, the festivals, the networking on Facebook and Twitter, the blogs (!), and now think of a life without any of that save one man you occasionally dare to send your poems to, your champion and curator of your reputation, which in any case you will not live to see. It is insane, isn’t it?

If anyone obeyed the instructions spoken at the end of  Seamus Heaney’s ‘North’, it was Hopkins:

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light (from North).

I am a great believer in the ‘power of the group’ theory of creativity, which says that creative artefacts, including those in the fields of science, politics and sport, are usually made by individuals who are connected to others with similar passions and concerns. Yes, I know in order to get my work done as a poet I need to sit alone and walk and mutter and face down that proverbial empty notebook, but I also know that to get it out there and start connecting and evaluating what I have made, what Godin calls shipping, I need to have a group of like-minded people around me, even if they are far away.

The evidence seems to show that Hopkins lived most of his artistic life without that kind of connection. The amateur psychologist in me (you know you do this too) wants to say that ‘No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ is the inevitable product of living in deep isolation. The realist in me wants to say Hopkins would have written it anyway, whatever anyone thought.

You can read ‘No worst, there is none’ at the Poetry Foundation website

You can find links to other poems in the Lifesaving Poems series here.


  1. Really enjoyed this blog. You are right – it does seem insane to think of writing and being truly alone – I love being part of a real and online poetry community. This has made me want to start reading Hopkins though – I’ve always avoided him before.


    1. Hi Kim and thanks for your kind comment.

      I would really recommend plunging in. There is a wonderful Carol Rumens post on the Guardian site about The Windhover. It is a great place to start if you do not know him. Don’t let the religion put you off either. It is there, you can’t avoid it with him. His so-called dark sonnets -from which No Worst There is None comes- are amazing. Best poems on depression and isolation ever. For me at any rate. But his praise poetry -of nature, of God, is equally amazing. You read him and get a hotline through to Hughes and Heaney and hosts of others. He’s kind of an unacknowledged godfather, if you’ll excuse the pun.
      As ever with good wishes


  2. Thanks for an interesting read today. I was a young admirer of Hopkins, too, although I didn’t know as much about his life as I learned here. Thank you for that. And for the excerpt from Heaney – lovely. As a writer myself (including poetry), however, I’m not big on “group creativity.” I agree that it’s good to have some small circle of like-minded friends who could be near or far to encourage and support, to sometimes offer critique, but the creativity and what genius there might be comes from single minds and souls at work. I’m also cranky about words like “shipping” which is unnecessary and simply a catchy way to describe something that’s always been around. We need to steer clear of those who want to “punch up” our work by selling us on tech-induced ideas like “group everything.” We need to keep our critical minds working as we seek the genius in our own possibilities. In the world of art and artists, the individual and his strong commitment will alway best the group. Those who believe strongly in “group everything” really need to understand more about groupthink (which always goes for the mediocre).
    Molly Larson Cook ( and


    1. Dear Molly Thank you so much for your kind comment on my post. I think we need to distinguish between ‘group creativity’ and ‘groupthink’. I think there are countless examples of ways in which creative individuals have made their work better, and therefore reach a wider audience, because of the networks they belonged to.

      Think of the so-called New York School and what they achieved. Doubtless each of them had bags of talent, but I am convinced that they achieved what they did because of the support, encouragement, rivalry and competitiveness that they shared in friendship with one another, not to mention any number of other writers and artists.

      Think too of the group that coalesced around Philip and Hannah Hobsbaum in Belfast in the mid-sixties: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, James Simmons and others. There is strength in the individual, I agree with you, yes, but there is power in the group. You are right, shipping is not such a new idea. All Seamus Heaney and his friends did in mid-sixties Belfast was commit to turning up each Monday night to share that week’s poem. That’s a kind of shipping. It’s always going to be local, contextualised and personal to the artists concerned. 

      My point about Hopkins was that here was a genius who went through his creative life pretty much alone. In one sense he wrote for one other, Bridges. I wonder what would his life have been like had he been part of a culture that allowed him to share (ship) with regular feedback? I cannot think of a poet I know who would choose to operate in the same kind of isolation.

      As ever with thanks and best wishes Anthony 

      Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is available here

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is available here



      1. Excellent addenda to the post, Anthony. And the clarification was just what I needed…Point well taken re group think and group creativity…
        All best,


  3. You’ve sent me back to Hopkins, thank you. And also to consider joining a writing group again. I’ve been without one for some time – although I am lucky enough to have writing friends. Hadn’t really considered just how important they are though. Hmmm… lots to think about!


    1. Thank you so much for this comment, I will follow up this link with interest.
      GMH is one of the greats in my book and this will be a new perspective for me.
      Thanks again and best wishes


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