Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, East of London, as the first of nine children to Manley and Catherine (Smith) Hopkins. His father founded a marine insurance firm and, at one time, was the British consul general in Hawaii. He was also, for a time, the church warden at St John-at- Hampstead and a published writer whose works included A Philosopher's Stone and Other Poems (1843), Pietas Metrica (1849), and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins (1892). He reviewed poetry for The Times and wrote one novel.
. Catherine (Smith) Hopkins was the daughter of a London physician, particularly fond of music and of reading, especially German philosophy, literature and the novels of Dickens. Both parents were deeply religious. Hopkins' first ambitions were to be a painter, and he would continue to sketch throughout his life. Hopkins became a skilled draughtsman and found that his early training in visual art supported his later work as a poet. Manley Hopkins moved his family to Hampstead in At ten years old Gerard Manley Hopkins was sent to board at Highgate School.
At Balliol College, Oxford (1863–67) he studied classics. Hopkins was an unusually sensitive student and poet, as witnessed by his class-notes and early poetic pieces. Hopkins began his time in Oxford as a keen socialite and prolific poet, but he seemed to have alarmed himself with the changes in his behaviour that resulted, and he became more studious and began recording his "sins" in his diary. In particular, he found it hard to accept his sexual attraction to other men, including a deep infatuation for Digby Mackworth Dolben.
On 18 January 1866 Hopkins composed his most ascetic poem, The Habit of Perfection. On 23 January he included poetry in the list of things to be given up for Lent. In July he decided to become a Catholic, and he traveled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Church on 21 October On 5 May 1868 Hopkins firmly "resolved to be a religious." Less than a week later, he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry almost entirely for seven years.
In 1874 he returned to Manresa House to teach classics. in 1875 he was moved to take up poetry once more and write a lengthy poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. This work was inspired by the Deutschland incident, a maritime disaster in which 157 people died including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws (see Kulturkampf). The work displays both the religious concerns and some of the unusual meter and rhythms of his subsequent poetry not present in his few remaining early works.
In 1877 he wrote Gods Grandeur, an array of sonnets including The Starlight Night and finished The Windhover only a few months before his ordination. In October 1877, not long after he completed The Sea and the Skylark and only a month after he had been ordained as a priest, Hopkins took up his duties as subminister and teacher at Mount St. Marys College, Chesterfield. In July 1878 he became curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London. In 1884 he became professor of Greek literature at University College Dublin. They came to be known as the "terrible sonnets," not because of their quality but because according to Hopkins's friend Canon Dixon, they reached the "terrible crystal," meaning that they crystallized the melancholy dejection which plagued the later part of Hopkins' life.