Anguish in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Poetry
In much of the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins it is his mental anguish and suffering that strikes a chord with the reader. The extreme nature of his suffering can be seen most clearly in two of his terrible sonnets, “No worst, there is none” and “I wake and feel the fell of dark”, which were written towards the end of his life. In his poem “Felix Randal” we see Hopkins first begin to doubt Gods goodness, a theme that is carried through to the terrible sonnets. Even in Hopkins’ more light and joyous poetry, such as “Spring” and “The Windhover”, there is an underlying theme of redemption, hinting at the questions of sin and forgiveness that torment the poet. However, not all of Hopkins’ poetry is defined by despair and anguish. Many of his earlier poems such as “Pied Beauty” focus on the beauty and wonder of nature.
While reading Hopkins’ poetry, it is evident to me that he was keenly aware that mankind was sinful. In “Spring”, Hopkins takes a more positive view of the theme of redemption, asking Jesus to preserve the innocence of children “before it cloy, / Before it cloud”. Although masked by the light verbal music of the poem, it is clear that Hopkins is highly conscious of sin, suggesting the unease and torment that fills his mind. A similar obsession with sin and redemption is evident in “The Windhover”, in which Hopkins uses the metaphor of Christ as a “chevalier” battling against sin, to express his feelings. Hopkins describes the effect the bird had on his harassed mind, “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird”. The use of sprung rhythm particularly emphasizes the contrast between the poet’s current state of joyous appreciation, and his previous feelings of doubt and torment. Hopkins generates a powerful, unpredictable music as he describes the gruesome death of Christ as “a billion / Times told lovelier”, once again showing how his restless mind continued to return to thoughts of sin and redemption.
We first encounter the theme of religious doubt in the poem “Felix Randal”. In a moving portrayal of mental and physical suffering Hopkins describes how the “big-boned and hardy-handsome” Felix Randal was broken by sickness. Felix curses God, and though Hopkins, a young priest, comforts him, it is clear that the poet is also beginning to doubt God’s fundamental mercy. His inner monologue runs between the octet and the sestet, and his personal cry of anguish is evident in his conclusion that “This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.” “I wake and feel the fell of dark” explores intense states of religious doubt. Hopkins is in a terrible state and calls out to God for help. He uses the metaphor of his prayers as “dead letters” that are sent to “dearest him that lives alas! Away”. There is even a sense in which the poet thinks that God wants him to suffer. He writes, “I am gall, I am heartburn.” He resents God for trapping him in his body, which he sees as a burden, or a cage in which his tormented soul is encased.
Two of Hopkins’ terrible sonnets describe his descent into mental torment. “No worst, there is none” could be described as a howl of mental torment. Hopkins creates an unpleasant verbal music with the line “Pitched past pitch of grief”. This jarring cacophony reflects his suffering. His mind is being “wrung” like a dishcloth, while his psyche is mangled and choked by the torment that afflicts him. “I wake and feel the fell of dark” captures the poets terrible insomnia when the night seems to stretch on and on. He compares his mental anguish to a terrible unending journey of dark “ways” and awful “sights”. It is clear from both the language and the metaphors used that the poet is gripped by doubt, confusion and despair.
While much of Hopkins’ later poetry is characterized by feelings of misery and hopelessness, his earlier poetry is largely an inspired and ecstatic response to nature’s beauty. In “Spring”, Hophins uses inscape to capture the unique essence and individuality of all that resides in “Eden garden”. He describes thrush’s eggs as “little low heavens”, marveling in their unique nature and energy, while also connecting them with the beauty and grandeur of heaven. There is a similar atmosphere of joyous celebration in “Pied Beauty”. Hopkins uses instress to highlight the divine energy that runs through all of nature. The use of sibilance in the line “swift, slow; sweet, sour” captures the diversity and beauty of nature. There is no evidence of mental anguish or suffering in “Peed Beauty”. Hopkins even reduces the typical Petrarchan sonnet to a curtail sonnet to further highlight the originality and differences in nature that he is celebrating.
While examining six of Hopkins’ poems, it becomes obvious that from his earliest days as a priest, he experienced underlying feelings of doubt and misery. While these feelings were often healed and diverted by an appreciation of nature, it is clear from Hopkins’ later poetry that his feelings of anguish and mental torment eventually overtook him, and his unwavering faith in God faded.
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In much of the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins it is his mental anguish and suffering that strikes a chord with the reader. The extreme nature of his suffering can […]