Poet of the other Stratford: Blake Morrison reports on how a deprived East End suburb is rediscovering its most famous son

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK, Stratford's most famous poet will at last have his plaque. No, not that Stratford, nor that poet, but Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose connections with the East End of London - or semi-rural Essex as it was when he was born in Stratford 150 years ago - are little known or celebrated.

Hopkins's links with Stonyhurst (where he taught) and Dublin (where he died at the age of 44) are properly commemorated; he also has a place in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Now the London Borough of Newham, too, will honour him, in a ceremony presided over by Seamus Heaney.

It's the last thing you'd associate with Newham, the borough of Alfred Hitchcock, Bobby Moore, Alf Garnett, and the other Labour Tony, Banks. Usually mentioned only in terms of its unemployment figures, its housing problems, its social deprivation, Newham has a low profile, in every sense. But that's part of the point, says Bill Sanderson, head of cultural services in Newham: 'One of the things we struggle with here is people's perception of Newham as a depressed place with no real history. We want to raise its profile and to change it to a place where people could invest time and money.'

Appropriately for a poet whose theme was doubleness, Hopkins's links with Stratford are twofold. He was born there on 28 July 1844, at 87 The Grove, a substantial family house within striking distance of the City, where his father worked as an average adjuster, or marine insurance claim assessor. (The firm of Manley Hopkins and Sons and Cookes, based in Folgate St, E1, still exists, though no family members now work there.)

The Hopkinses had strong roots in Stratford, but as industry and the railway arrived the character of the place was changing, and in 1852 they moved to Hampstead. Young Gerard flourished at Highgate School, and won the school poetry prize. Later, as a Jesuit priest, he wrote poems of muscled rapture ('The Windhover', 'Pied Beauty') too odd to find a publisher during his life.

In 1875, Hopkins wrote his longest and most famous poem, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', in memory of five Franciscan nuns who were among the 40-odd people drowned when the Deutschland, sailing from Bremen to North America, struck a sandbank near the mouth of the Thames Estuary during a snowstorm. Dramatic reports of the shipwreck and aftermath gripped readers of the Times. Hopkins was particularly taken with the story of 'the chief sister, a gaunt woman six ft high, calling out loudly and often 'O Christ, come quickly]' till the end came.'

The Deutschland also has a Stratford connection: four of the nuns (the body of the fifth was lost) were brought by train from Harwich to be laid out in the friary opposite Hopkins's old house. The funeral sermon was given by Cardinal Manning. For many Catholics in Britain, the nuns, driven out of Germany by Bismarck's anti-Catholic legislation, were a symbol of religious persecution:

Loathed for a love men knew in them,

Banned by the land of their birth,

Rhine refused them. Thames would ruin them . . .

The poem includes some of Hopkins's most famous lines - including 'I am soft sift / In an hourglass' - but was too obscure for the editor of the Catholic journal The Month, who rejected it, and for Hopkins's friend and poetic adviser Robert Bridges, who called it 'presumptious (sic) jugglery'.

Today, the Hopkins Heritage Trail, such as it is (and no one quite dares to call it that yet), is bleakly urban - 'seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil', as the poet put it, but not without 'barbarous beauty'. You begin at the pyramid-like office of Newham's finance and housing department, which stands on the site of Hopkins's house (bombed during the war and later pulled down). Crossing The Grove, now a busy three-lane one-way system, you reach St John's Church, where Hopkins was baptised - a fine building, if rather overshadowed by a Sixties shopping centre.

Two hundred yards further up The Grove is the Church and Friary of St Francis: the room where the nuns were laid out - their habits removed, laundered, ironed and replaced by a local girl, Mary Broadway, who later became a nun herself - is now used as a toddlers' playgroup. Finally, two miles away is St Patrick's Cemetery, Leytonstone, where the nuns were buried. On that day, 4,000 people were said to have joined the funeral procession and another 40,000 lined the route. Today, the vast cemetery is silent, but for Tube trains running beyond the headstones.

The population of Newham is now 47 per cent ethnic minority, and most of the borough's cultural events reflect that. But for Mr Sanderson, and for Roger McMaster, advisory services manager, celebrating Hopkins isn't incompatible with running a Tamil and Malayalee Communities Health Advocacy Project or putting on a 'Mela' or 'Africabana' festival: 'We want to celebrate the people who make up the borough's history, to show those who live here that it's a place that's valued, and to give them greater access to their past.'

One question still hangs over 'The Wreck of the Deutschland': did Hopkins know that the four nuns had been laid out in the friary almost opposite 87 The Grove, and was that part of the reason the tragedy moved him to write poetry again after a period of silence? The evidence is sketchy. His diaries after 1875 were destroyed or have been lost, and it's not clear exactly what he had read before setting to work. But he loved ambiguity, and in the last stanza the phrase 'at our door' could be a reference not just to England in general but, more slyly, to the nuns at the door of his old house:

Dame, at our door

Drowned, and among our shoals,

Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:

Our King back, oh, upon English souls]

The organisers of this week's unveiling want Hopkins to be remembered in the roads by his old door. It would delight them to think that in the sprung rhythm of his great poem lay a veiled reference to the London Borough of Newham.

(Photograph omitted)