Religious Crisis in Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets

Ronald L. Ecker

Although most of his poetry rings with religious ebullience, the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899) was a man who suffered many "black hours" of spiritual anguish and frustration. He gave these painful hours remarkable expression in a short series of poems that has become known as Hopkins' "terrible sonnets." One must look to these sonnets, then, to discover the reasons why a poet as fervently religious as the Jesuit Hopkins struggled at the brink of despair.

Despair is referred to by Emily Dickinson as "that pale sustenance." In the sonnet "Carrion Comfort"--written in sprung rhythm and filled with the assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme so characteristic of Hopkins' style--the metaphor is similar. "Carrion Comfort, Despair" tries to force itself upon Hopkins as he lies on the verge of losing hope completely and unraveling like a worn-out rope ("slack they may be--these last strands of man / In me"). What has brought Hopkins to this state of despondency is best surmised by considering the mortifications his religious calling entailed. A life of service in the Society of Jesus is indeed one that demands much of body and soul. And even the most renowned of saints--including Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits--were not immune to the proverbial "dark night of the soul." Nor should one forget the lament of Christ himself in his own dark night of agony: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

In the face of carrion comfort Despair, however, Hopkins is yet able to offer a flare of defiance. His tone is one of determined abstinence, of desperate negation--hence his strong repetition in the opening line: "Not, I'll not . . . not feast on thee!" Despite his defiance, however, Hopkins' plight is considerable:

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock?

This line, generously "sprung," moves with an alliterative rhythm that captures its image superbly--Hopkins downtrodden and kicked by Despair's inexorable foot. The line is also exemplary of Hopkins' unusual use of words. The word "terrible" here has the import of a noun, and the perfectly placed "rude" can modify "thou" as well as the action of the "foot" while lending assonance to "wouldst" and alliteration to "wring-world," "right," and "rock."

With the sestet there is a shift from darkness to light as the poet experiences a sudden revelation. He now sees his plight not as a curse but as a supreme trial, a spiritual purgation--that last clearing away of the "chaff" to purify the soul and bring it finally to God. Hopkins thus bears up under this test of his spiritual strength and recalls a quite similar ordeal of the past:

That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with
(my God!) my God.

This, then, was certainly not the first occasion of spiritual "darkness" in Hopkins' life, and he finds new courage in the victory his faith has brought him in the past--a victory so meaningful that in his exuberance he even compares himself to Jacob, the man who physically strove with God and survived the test with blessings.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Gustave Doré

In the sonnet "No Worst, There Is None," Hopkins is unable to find his way back to reassurance so easily. In this instance, however, it is not for himself that Hopkins laments but for the condition of the world in general. The "chief woe" in which his cries "huddle" is "world-sorrow." And in his deep compassion for others Hopkins suffers a frustrating inability to understand God's ways:

Comforter, where, were is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

And it is this seeming lack of justification that makes a hell of Hopkins' mind; the description of his mental agony is hauntingly surrealistic:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.

Again the poet is about to fall into complete despair. And this time no light of enlightenment comes. He has asked for comfort but receives no answer, and as the sonnet ends he can see only death and its forgetfulness as the comfort nearest at hand: "All life death does end and each day dies with sleep."

Knight, Death and the Devil
Albrecht Dürer

Inability to understand God's ways is expressed again by Hopkins in "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord":

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper?

He has taken these lines directly from Jeremiah 12:1:

Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I complain to thee:
Yet I would plead my case before thee.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?

Certainly, then, Hopkins has himself a good argument. But not only is his concern for the inexplicable prosperity of sinners given expression here, but concern for his own failures. He states that all he endeavors ends in disappointment; everything he attempts it seems to be God's will to "defeat, thwart." His beautiful imagery of flowering spring in contrast to his own barrenness is masterful and represents Hopkins' style at its finest. It also represents Hopkins at the height of his inner frustrations.

These frustrations within him are dealt with more specifically in "To Seem the Stranger," a somber expression of loneliness, of inhibition, and of a sense of inadequacy in life.

In the first four lines of this sonnet, Hopkins acknowledges that his must perforce be a life of loneliness and continual self-sacrifice. This, in its primary sense, he can readily accept, for separation from family ties is required for all those dedicated to the discipleship of Christ--"he my peace my parting, sword and strife." Hopkins derives these words, in fact, from words of the Master Himself (Matt. 10:34-6):

Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . . and a man's foes will be those of his own household.

Thus Hopkins is a stranger to his family. Looking upon England, however, the poet now senses that he is also a stranger among all his countrymen. For he finds himself in no position to lend a hand in the amelioration of his country's secular affairs. In a letter to Coventry Patmore in 1886, Hopkins expresses a deep concern "for England, for the British Empire, which now trembles in the balance held in the hand of unwisdom." (1) Yet he sadly asserts in the sonnet that it would be quite futile were he able to raise his voice at all; even "where wars are rife" it seems that he, in the humble station he has chosen, can only stand by so "idle a being."

The sestet finds him in Ireland, "at a third remove," in a third sense the stranger. In his loyalty to England, "whose honor O all my heart woos," Hopkins was greatly disturbed by the Irish struggle for political freedom--yet was now teaching at University College in Dublin. (2)

It is obvious that Hopkins wanted badly to really count for something in life, but his life was never his own. And consequently his feeling of inhibition, of "dark heaven's baffling ban," weighs him down in the concluding lines of the sonnet. He terms himself "a lonely began," in that his heart breeds words that he longs to express but which, producing no more than a small collection of then unpublished poems, he must "hoard unheard."

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Francisco de Goya

If ever Hopkins truly experienced the dark night of the soul, it was in the sonnet that begins with that tormented line "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day." It is the emphatic hyperbole and the startling imagery of this poem that gives it its power. "What hours, O what black hours," Hopkins exclaims. Nor would he have us forget for a moment the veracity of his assertions: "With witness I speak this. But where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life" (with a pun on "mean").

Hopkins amplifies this anguish in the sestet by describing the soul's predicament in the flesh. Like the old mystic ashamed to be found in a body, Hopkins metaphorically identifies himself with the exacerbating unpleasantness of gastric disorder, producing a most memorable line: "I am gall, I am heartburn."

Hopkins feels so corrupted he can taste it. He declares that this corporeal existence is the bitterest decree God could have handed down. The body is a loathsome prison to the soul aspiring to rise and return to the Eternal Bosom: "Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours."

With men so naturally wretched, the poet shrinks to think of a hell for the lost worse than that which they already possess--"their sweating selves." This sonnet is indeed an expression of dark agony, of the deplorable state of man, and the struggle of the righteous against fleshly evils. It is also a testament to Hopkins' faith that he weathered such anguish and frustration.

But although his faith did endure, it is very doubtful that Hopkins ever found complete peace from the torments that so plagued him in the "terrible sonnets." Rather it would probably be more accurate to say that he learned to accept the world as it was and to live by simple faith. In "My Own Heart Let Me More Have Pity On," Hopkins is resigned to the fact that there is really nothing he can do to alleviate the tribulations of the world, that God's ways will forever remain mysterious in the eyes of mortals, and that if there is anything that actually requires Hopkins' immediate concern it is his own "sad self."

If Hopkins is indulging in a good deal of self-pity in this sonnet, it is, judging by the others, certainly to be understood. And even if his decision to "call off thoughts awhile elsewhere" is a submission to despair, it is also part of the declaration of the faith with which the sonnet ends. For even as he now intends to let God bestow his blessings when and if He might choose to do so, Hopkins asserts his faith that those blessings indeed will be bestowed. Not in times when you might expect them, or times when you think you need them, but "unforeseen times rather," God's blessings will come--just as the gleam of the sun in a dappled sky breaks between two mountains and "lights a lovely mile."


Gerard Manley Hopkins

1. W.H. Gardner, Gerard Manley Hopkins (Baltimore: Penguin, 1962), p. 203.
2. Ibid., p. xxvii.

English 481
Professor Bigelow
University of Florida
December 3, 1963

Copyright 1963, 2004 by Ronald L. Ecker

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