Religious Doubt and Faith in Hopkins’ Later Poetry

The central role of religion in Hopkins’ life gives it a similar significance in his poetry. The later poems by Hopkins, collectively generalised as the ‘Terrible Sonnets’, emphasise how religious doubt and faith, affected largely by personal circumstance, formed the foundation of Hopkins’ late work. As the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ were mostly written at a time where Hopkins was in ill health, physically and mentally, from the stress of living in Dublin after 1884, his personal conflict with religion undoubtedly underpins these poems. Most of the later poems clearly present elements of doubt and despair as shown in ‘No worst, there is none’ and ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’. However, some of these later poems can also be interpreted as containing hope, most notably in ‘That Nature is a Heracltiean Fire and the Comfort of Resurrection’ and even ‘Carrion Comfort’. The significance of religion is seen in the intense personal struggle that Hopkins endures as he questions his own faith. His lamentation in ‘My own heart let me have more pity on’ that “not live this tormented mind / With this tormented mind tormenting yet” encapsulates the distress of his situation in Dublin. The repetition of torment has many moving connotations of an endless and consuming frustration. The lines produce a sense of madness which has an almost schizophrenic quality. The use of “this” twice makes the article uncertain, which could also reflect the loss of certainty of identity endured by Hopkins as he questions his own faith. The contrast in the devices used by Hopkins between his earlier poems and the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ emphasises the significance of religion in his later poetry. In poems such as ‘God’s Granduer’ Hopkins expresses powerfully that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”. The use of light and ‘electric’ image of “charged” is a typical feature of the earlier poems which reflect Hopkins’ perception of God as a saviour and as guide. By contrast the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ are characterised by darkness. The loss of light, which was previously embodied in religious faith and belief in God, implies that Hopkins endures religious doubt. ‘Spelt From Sybil’s Leaves’ has been seen as the transitory poem between Hopkins’ hope and “Despair” as he describes the coming of the night as “Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west”. Hopkins sees darkness in this poem, and others, with a similar perspective. In ‘Spelt From Sybil’s Leaves’ he sees darkness as showing “For earth her being has been unbound, her dapple is at an end”. Hopkins interprets the coming of the night as an end to the ‘dapple’ and uniqueness that evokes such passion in his earlier poems. ‘Spelt From Sybil’s Leaves’ has many ambiguities in the octet, in particular in his juxtaposition of “womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all” to describe the night. “Womb” and “home” have immediately positive connotations of security and comfort and is powerfully contrasted by “hearse” which creates a morbid shift in tone. Although the lines could be interpreted as reflecting the peaceful night, the later line, “Our evening is over us; our night whelms, whelms and will end us” emphasises the view that Hopkins regards the darkness as a form of death. The association of darkness to ‘death’ can be interpreted as literal death and possibly reflecting Hopkins’ greater consciousness of his morbidity with his ill health and isolation. However, a biographical interpretation is difficult as the date of the poem is not precisely known. Darkness seems more appropriately related to the beginnings of religious doubt and used in similar style to Blake’s ‘A Little Boy Lost’ in which the boy is lost in darkness and searches for direction in God. Hopkins’ sense of being in darkness is characterised in ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”. The religious meaning is also visible in this poem as Hopkins laments that “God’s most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste”. Hopkins reflects “But where I say / Hours, I mean years, mean life” which suggests that his sense of Despair has consumed him to undo the foundations of his entire existence – therefore being a significant influence on his poetry. As Hopkins laments the loss of the earth’s “skeined stained, veined variety” the religious tone of the poem is emphasised as it leads to the poignant image of “all on two spools; part, pen pack”. The alliterative pairs of “skeined stained, veined variety” also resonate with the image of division with two “spools”. The remainder of the poem has further religious imagery such as the separation of ‘good and evil’ emphasised by biblical connotations of “two flocks, two folds – black, white; right wrong”. Religion appears to be divisive for Hopkins, causing a personal conflict similar to torture as emphasised by the most poignant image of the poem – “of a rack, / where selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe – and shelterless, thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.” As religious faith was so central to Hopkins, it seems most appropriate to interpret his sense of torture and darkness as a consequence of his conflict with the concept of God. Hopkins seems disturbed by an expectation of torture in death as emphasised by the image of “a rack.” This could reflect an element of religious doubt or fear of the eventual outcome of his existence. His coinage of the words “selfwrung, selfstrung” has immediate connotations of a personal conflict which, from the preceding religious imagery, is likely to reflect Hopkins’ struggles with religious faith in Dublin. The images resonate with the descriptions of Dante’s Inferno and the expression by Dante that the worst torture endured by humans is to act-out their sins for eternity; this is also implied by Hopkins’ image of “selfwrung, selfstrung”. Hopkins final words of “thoughts against thoughts in groans grind” can link to the same image but also emphasise his fears about his conflict with religion. Just as in ‘Carrion Comfort’ Hopkins seems horrified that “I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God”, in ‘Spelt From Sybil’s Leaves’ as the darkness falls literally in the poem and metaphorically on Hopkins’ tone, he seems to be most concerned with religion. Hopkins emphasises the role of religion in his later poems most clearly in ‘No worst there is none’. His demanding questions – “Comforter, where, where, is your comforting?” and “Mary, mother of us, where is your relief” – show the direct concern with religion. The repetition of “where” can be seen as forming the Sprung Rhythm. However, it seems to have more rhetorical importance as the line is sharp and powerful which is salient amid the general rhythm in showing the intensity of Hopkins’ emotions towards God (almost certainly represent by the metaphor of “comforter”). The anguish of the repetition only emphasises the sense of despair. Hopkins’ direct address to God is rarely seen in his earlier poetry, which may emphasise his personal turmoil at the time of writing. Just as he addresses the “comforter” and “Mary, mother of us” in ‘No worst there is none’, in ‘Carrion Comfort’ Hopkins is directly critical towards God: “O though terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me / Thy ring-world right foot rock?” The image of Hopkins being a “rock” and ‘kicked’ by God is emphasised by “my bruised bones” and “the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod.” Hopkins appears to lament his suffering despite him having “kissed the rod, / Hand rather” of God. God is likened to a “tempest” and the combination of different images used encapsulates the torment felt by Hopkins as his religious faith became shaken. His emotion, poetic expression and passion all appear to be driven by religious faith. There are, however, examples of Hopkins later poems which are not centred on God. ‘To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life’ emphasises the distress of Hopkins as he is “in Ireland now” and “at a third / Remove”. This poem is important in examining the causes of the despairing tone presented by Hopkins consistently throughout his later poems. The isolation from his family while in Dublin and the extraordinary emotional pressure it placed on Hopkins is shown poignantly in this poem as he even feels distanced from “Father and mother dear, / Brothers and sisters” because they are “in Christ not near”. This line exemplifies religion as an important concern of Hopkins’ poetry as again shows how his choice of religion distanced him from his family. However, the religious aspect is not central to this particular poem as it seems more to embody Hopkins’ lament at his distance from his family and isolation. The distance that Hopkins seems to feel from himself and his expectations of his character appears to be equally important. The central notion of ‘To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life’ appears to be in the lines “Only what word / Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban / Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.” In addition to religious doubt and faith, Hopkins also struggles with his own character as he finds his passion of writing beginning to fade. Even until his final poem, ‘To R.B.’, this concern consumes Hopkins – “I want the one rupture of an inspiration”. Therefore, in Hopkins’ later poetry, his religious doubt seems to emerge due to his intense struggles with being unable to write and feelings of isolation. The one exception of religious doubt being significant among the later poems is in ‘That Nature is a Heracltiean Fire and the Comfort of Resurrection,’ which also shows the strength of faith. The poem contains a rare image of light for the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ in the lines, “Across my foundering deck shone / A beacon, an eternal beam” which could represents the hope that Hopkins may have seen in the transience of existence and suffering in anticipation of an afterlife with salvation. This transience is reflected by the image of “Heracltiean fire” in its association with the philosophy of Heraclites on the cyclical nature of existence. His regaining of hope in this poem as he suggests “I am all at once what Christ is” and “This Jack, joke, poor postherd, patch matchwood, immortal diamond / Is immortal diamond” reflects the strength of Hopkins’ religious sentiments to influence his poetry. The sprung rhythm of the penultimate rhyme with the euphony of the ‘dappled’ alliteration and contrasts of images between “matchwood” and “immortal diamond” reflect the power of faith to inspire Hopkins. The return of more coloured language and further light, implied by the diamond imagery, suggests Hopkins found momentary relief amidst his despair. The separation of the final “immortal diamond” on the last line reflects the confidence in his conclusion. The line is presented firmly and individually showing no expression of doubt and a finality that is embodied in being “immortal”. Hopkins is unable to break from his religious faith and even expresses this in ‘Carrion Comfort’, one of his most despairing poems, that he will “not choose not to be.” Since Hopkins returns to religion in the time of his greatest tribulation, despite the sometimes accusing tone, it is possible to suggest that religion is central to his life and poetry. The foundation of his religious faith seems to be the very cause of his greatest sorrow in suffering. It is only because of religious belief and faith that Hopkins is troubled by his suffering and questions the central foundation of his existence. Before the ‘Terrible Sonnets’, Hopkins was consistently positive and passionate towards nature and God’s creation. The exhortations of instress and inscape seen in poems such as ‘The Windhover’ and ‘Pied Beauty’ is absent from the later poems. Although it can be dubious to examine what is not there, with such a central feature of almost every poem written by Hopkins, the absence of this highest passion shows the great religious turmoil that he endured. The fear, uncertainty and devastation of having doubts about such fundamental faith are the underpinnings of the emotions in Hopkins’ later poetry.

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