As autumn deepens, the days grow ever shorter, the nights longer.

Our bodies, if not constrained by trying to follow “clock time,” gradually adjust to this, but nonetheless sometimes we find ourselves waking in the night, unable to go back to sleep.

In that time of dark stillness, any sensory event makes a much stronger impression than usual, like a pebble falling into a well.

Gochiku wrote a hokku expressing this silence of the mind into which a sensory experience falls, and one can hardly do better than the translation of R. H. Blyth:

The long night;
The sound of water
Says what I think.

Gochiku does not mean that the sound of water dripping, flowing, or falling (he does not specify which) in the night is in keeping with thoughts, with images running through his mind. He means instead that the sound of water expresses the silence of his mind, an empty darkness in which that sound becomes magnified by the absence of both active thinking and other sensory input — again, like a pebble falling into a deep dark well, creating only a resonant splash and waves moving outward in a circle and being reflected inward again.


Everyone experiences a hokku differently, depending on our individual stores of memories and impressions. While this hokku retains its essential meaning no matter whether one hears a slow dripping of water, like that of rain dripping from a roof, or the gurgling of a nearby stream, or that of a very small waterfall, I like to hear the slow dripping of water. It is a sound that comes into consciousness, disappears, then appears again, a kind of ticking of the world clock in which we feel what is always happening, things arising and passing away, the constant movement from this moment to the next, a repeating birth and death.

We should not, however, think of this sound of water in the night as a symbol or metaphor of anything. It expresses itself, but in it we feel the nature of all existence.

In form, this is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action:

The long night; (setting)
The sound of water (subject)
Says what I think. (action)

One can write countless hokku using this setting/subject/action model. Just remember that the setting is the place, condition or circumstance in which something happens. The subject is the main “actor” in the verse (a noun), and the action is precisely that, something moving or changing, generally characterized by a verb.

One can simplify this in terms of a play:

The setting is the stage, which can show us day, night, rain, a time of year, etc. etc.;
The subject is the actor on that stage, what the “play” is about;
The action is what the actor does, what happens on stage.

That is, of course, a simplified way of approaching the subject, but it may be helpful to those who wish to learn to write real hokku.

For those who like to see originals, here it is transliterated and with a literal translation, in “western” three line form:

Nagaki yo ya
Omou koto iu
Mizu no oto

Long night ya
Thought thing says
Water ‘s sound


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William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote a poem about a very difficult time in his life, a work that has been both praised and (unjustly) derided over the years. Its subject is the human spirit and its response to difficult circumstances.


We all have seen how differently people react to the same trying event, such as the death of a dear family member or a terrible accident: some just regard it quietly, with grim, dry-eyed stoicism, while others fall apart completely and can barely function. How one responds gives a very good picture of one’s psychological makeup.

In such times of trial — we commonly speak of them as “dark” times — we are forced to see the negative side of life, the side we try to ignore or forget about for our own mental health. But Henley could not forget about it or overlook it. As a boy he suffered so severely from tubercular arthritis that doctors eventually removed one of his legs. Medicine in those days was still primitive and germ-ridden, and the result of surgery was often infection and death. When, in 1873, doctors wanted to remove his other leg, Henley managed to get another opinion, which fortunately was that of Joseph Lister, the man who pioneered the new technique of antiseptic surgery. By that decision Henley saved his remaining leg.

Because of all his difficulties, Henley was “in hospital” as the British say, for a very long time, almost two years, and one can imagine how this must have affected the young man. He began to write poetry about those troubling months, a series of verses called In Hospital.

Henley had certainly known dark times. He could truly say, as Robert Frost wrote in a poem, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” He must have felt like those unfortunates spoken of in William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

What follows is the most famous of his “hospital” poems. It was written in 1875, and was later given a title that summarizes it well — Invictus, Latin for “Unconquered”:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

We have seen that “night” is a metaphor for dark and difficult times. So dark were those times for Henley that he described them as night so black that it “extended from pole to pole,” that is, it darkened his whole world.

He speaks of that darkness as “black as the pit.” What is “the pit”? At that time the Bible was well known in Britain, and so immediately a reader would have recognized “the pit” as a synonym for death, the grave, as in Job 17:16:

They shall go down to the bars of the pit, when our rest together is in the dust.

But again for those in Britain, it was a common term among coal miners, for whom “to go down the pit” meant to descend into a coal mine, and there was nothing blacker than the depths of a coal mine when a lamp went out, no darkness, at least no physical darkness, greater. So this usage by Henley was, in its time, very strong and expressive.

But in that darkness, he did not just give in to utter despair. He did not let his emotions rule him; instead, he took charge of his thoughts, guiding himself through those black times like a captain in control of his ship. For this ability he is so grateful that he thanks whatever in the universe gave him the ability to manifest this inner strength; he thanks whatever gods there might be, whatever the reasons were, for his unconquerable spirit.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Henley used the old word “fell,” as did J.R.R. Tolkien, to mean “deadly, terrible.” In the terrible and deadly grasp of the circumstances that beset him, Henley did not wince, did not shrink back, nor did he cry out in anguish. He kept his composure. And under the beatings that fortune had dealt him, he took those blows but did not give in or submit. Metaphorically speaking, his head was wounded, but he kept it erect and did not bow to the forces besetting him, he did not give in to despair. These words “My head is bloody, but unbowed” have become famous and are often quoted. One thinks of the old Christian hymn by Bach, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” “O Head full of blood and wounds,” referring to the passion of Jesus, and Henley may have had that image of the Passion in mind.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Henley’s attitude is much like that of the pre-Christian Romans. They did not know what came after death, but often pictured the afterworld as a dark place. He sees this world as a “place of wrath and tears,” a place of suffering and sorrow, and beyond that comes death, “the Horror of the shade.” “Shade” here means darkness, shadows, but it also has undertones of the old use of the word, meaning a departed spirit. So he cannot see what lies before him; all is shadowed. Yet he has survived so far, and “the menace of the years,” the threat both of life and of what lies beyond, “finds and shall find me unafraid.” Henley has survived the trials of life, and he will go through the trials of death, whatever they may be, with the same strength of spirit. His attitude here is both courageous and agnostic (literally “not-knowing”) — he is confident that he will deal with whatever comes.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Henley begins his final stanza with a biblical allusion, Matthew 7:13 in the King James Version:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

“Strait” is an old word meaning narrow and constricted. The biblical reference means that the way to eternal life is so narrow and difficult that very few will find it and be able to make it though.

He continues with the old notion that all of a human’s deeds in life, both good and bad, are written down in a book or on a scroll. We find this notion in the Bible, in Revelation 20:12

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”

So Henley is using old allusions to signify that it does not matter how difficult the passage into the afterlife may be, nor does it matter what awaits him there, even if it be punishment. Through it all he will maintain his inner strength, and nothing will cow (intimidate) him.

Some people may see this, incorrectly, as a very egotistical poem, because we know that many difficult circumstances in life, and certainly ultimate death, are quite beyond our control. But Henley is not saying he controls the great events of life and death; he is saying simply that whatever life or death may bring, he has already been through the fire, he has already been tested by suffering, and that has given him unconquerable strength. For him the old saying of Friedrich Nietzsche has proved true:

Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Because of his previous suffering, he now has the courage to face whatever may come. As Buddhism teaches, that which we no longer fear has no real power over us.


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I often mention that Shiki, who is generally considered (inaccurately) the founder of the modern haiku movement, just continued to write hokku, for the most part, though he called them “haiku.”

Not only were his verses hokku in form, they also continued the seasonal connection (which most writers of modern haiku have abandoned entirely) and, whether Shiki himself realized it or not, they often continued the aesthetic approach of hokku, so were hokku for all practical purposes, whatever he wished to call them.

Here is a good example, which in form and content is really nothing other than an autumn hokku:

The light in the next room
Goes out too;
The cold of night.

If you read my previous postings on the Hokku Wheel of the Year and the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, you will easily grasp the significance of this verse.

It is set in autumn, the time when Yang energy (light, warmth, movement) is fading and Yin energy (dark, cold, stillness) is increasing. It is late night. the writer extinguishes his own lamp, and then, after some time in silence, he sees the faint glow from the light in the next room go out too.

This verse expresses very well the fading of Yang energy, as first one light goes out — adding to the darkness — and then the light in the other room also goes out, making the darkness complete. And in that darkness one suddenly perceives deeply the chill of the autumn night, not yet as piercing as that of winter, but affecting in its expression that light and warmth are fading from the world. This increasing of darkness and cold parallels the waning of Yang and the increasing dominance of Yin in the season of autumn. So we could say quite honestly that this little verse manifests the character of deepening autumn very well.

It is all such deeper connections that have been forgotten and lost in the modern haiku movement, which on the whole has a completely different spirit and aesthetic than the practice of hokku. It already began to be lost in the time of Shiki, but we still find it in this verse.

As I have mentioned before, I have one reader who chides me if I do not add the originals for Japanese hokku I translate here, so for him and any others who may wish it, here is Shiki’s verse in a literal translation (in Western lineation) and in transliteration.

Next’s room’s
Light also extinguished
Night-cold kana

Tsugi no ma no/ tomoshi mo kiete/ yosamu kana
Next ‘s room ‘s/ lamp also extinguished/ night-cold kana

We are getting closer to the next major calendar point in the hokku year, which is Halloween/Samhain; it marks the end of autumn by the old calendar, and the beginning of winter, the season when Yang forces are weakest and Yin forces dominant. Shiki’s verse of increasing darkess and cold makes a good lead-in to that.


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The Autumn Solstice has passed. That means the days are growing shorter, the nights longer.

In my recent discussion of the hokku Wheel of the Year, I emphasized how very important the seasons are to hokku. It is a new concept for many people — writing in keeping with the seasons — but it is nonetheless a very old practice.

Hokku, you will recall, are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing seasons. In autumn, autumn hokku are written. To do that, one has to understand the character of autumn — what it is like, and how it manifests in Nature.

As are all seasons, autumn is a stage in the interplay of the two forces, Yin and Yang. In autumn Yang is decreasing and Yin increasing, and that is particularly obvious now that the autumn solstice has passed. Withering and dying are Yin, and in autumn we see plants and leaves begin to wither and die. Cold is Yin, and in autumn we feel the air growing ever cooler as the sun declines lower and lower in its arc across the sky. Darkness is Yin, and in autumn darkness (night) grows while light (the day) wanes. Things that retreat or fall are Yin, and in autumn the sap retreats from twigs and branches in trees and leaves begin to fall; in annual plants the energy has gone into the seeds, and in many perennial plants the life energy leaves the withering, visible part of the plant and retreats to the root.

So in autumn, the general feeling is of withdrawal, of “returning to the root.” It is a preparation for the quiet and chilly days of winter, the beginning of a natural turning inward.

It may interest you, in this regard, to know the basics of the traditional Five Elements associated with seasonal change. Summer was a “fire” season, as you might guess from its very Yang character. As Yang began to weaken in late summer, the element changed to earth. Now that autumn is here, the predominant element is metal. And when winter comes, the element will be water, to be followed in spring by the wood element. These are significant because all relate to processes in the human body and its cycles of energy. For example, now is a good time to begin adding lots of “black” foods to your diet. Why? Because foods black in color relate to and strengthen the “water” element in your body, and after the “metal” season of autumn comes the “water” season of winter, so eating black foods now helps you to prepare your system for winter; that is good for your kidneys and your basic energy, which are also “water” element-related. There is much more to say about this and the relationship between the seasons and health, but this aspect is not so important to writing hokku, except in so far as it helps to keep you even more attuned to the seasons and their changes. So I will not talk more about it now, but encourage those interested to learn at least the simple basics of the traditional Five Elements Theory. You will find many web sites that give charts showing the interrelationships of the seasons, the five elements, appropriate helpful seasonal foods, and the cycle of the body.

Of course hokku written in autumn should be in keeping with and expressing the character of the season. Buson wrote this autumn hokku:

Going out the gate,
I too become a traveller;
The autumn evening.

Autumn is often thought of as a time of travel, of migration. That is because it is the time when migratory birds take the long journey to where they will spend the winter, and animals move from their summer haunts to places where they will winter. So that feeling of “changing homes,” of being a rootless traveller, is very in keeping with the atmosphere of autumn. So Buson says that just by walking out his gate in autumn, he too becomes a part of this feeling of “migration,” and now you understand better why this is a hokku appropriate to the season.

It is appropriate too that the hokku is set in the evening, when the light is waning and darkness coming on, because of course increasing darkness is increasing Yin, and autumn itself is a time of increasing Yin. So this verse uses two things associated with autumn — travel and the waning of the day. You will recall that in hokku correspondences, Autumn relates to the time from late afternoon to early evening, and in human life to the time past middle age through the onset of old age. So we can see that Buson’s verse uses “harmony of similarity,” the putting together in a hokku of things that reflect one another by having a similar character. In this verse both travel and the coming of evening relate to autumn.

To get a better grasp of this relationship between hokku and the seasons, you might wish to again visit the recent posting on the Hokku Wheel of the Year, which you will find here:


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There are two aspects to hokku:

1. The form
2. The content

Of these two aspects, the content takes some time to absorb, particularly the aesthetic spirit characterizing hokku. The form, on the other hand, takes only a few minutes.

It can easily be described and learned.

An English language hokku is:

1. Written in three lines.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

2. Fully punctuated.

A hokku has one or more internal punctuation marks, and an ending punctuation mark.

3. Divided into two parts, one longer, one shorter.

The long part consists of two lines, the short part of only one line.
The short part may begin or end the verse.
An appropriate punctuation mark separates the two parts of a hokku.

Punctuation in hokku is simple.

A period (.) or other appropriate punctuation ends a hokku.
A semicolon is used for a meditative pause.
A dash (–), typed as two hyphens, indicates a longer meditative pause. Ellipses (…) may serve a similar function.
A comma (,)indicates a short, connective pause.
An exclamation point indicates something unusual, unexpected, surprising, or strongly emphasized. It is used rarely.
A question mark (?) indicates an asked but unanswered question.

The simplicity and practicality of the hokku form in English enables the writer to concentrate on form.

Let’s take a look at a verse — in this case a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:


Evening clearing;
Against the pale-blue sky –
Rows of autumn hills.

At the top of the verse comes its overall seasonal setting, in this case autumn.

The first line gives us the particular setting — “Evening clearing” — the clearing of the sky at evening. The sky having cleared, we see the subject of the verse in the second and third lines:

Against the pale-blue sky –
Rows of autumn hills.

The primary punctuation mark that separates the two parts of the verse is the semicolon at the end of the first line:

Evening clearing;

There is a secondary punctuation mark at the end of the second line, which in this case not only connects the second and third lines but also gives us a rather long meditative pause:

Against the pale-blue sky –
Rows of autumn hills.

We could also use a comma if a shorter pause is desired:

Against the pale-blue sky,
Rows of autumn hills.

Many verses have no secondary punctuation before the ending mark, but they always have the primary punctuation mark separating the long and short parts of the hokku.

Just which punctuation mark to use in a given case depends upon how the writer wishes the verse to be read. Punctuation is used to guide the reader through the verse easily and without confusion, but it also provides fine shades of pause and emphasis that vary depending on which mark is employed.

Now you know the outer form of hokku, and you should be able to easily use it. The trick, however, is to learn how to put good and effective content into that form, and learning that comprises all the rest of hokku.


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In March of 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins was working as a parish priest’s assistant in Oxford, England. It was familiar territory for him, having studied Greek and Latin at Oxford from 1862-1867. In wandering north of the city he came to the little village of Binsey, with which he had long been familiar. There he found to his horror that the long line of tall trees he was accustomed to seeing along the River Thames was gone; all had been cut down. He was so moved by this that he wrote the following poem:


felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

Hopkins, in speaking of the vanished trees, says Their “airy cages,” meaning their intertwined leaf-covered branches, sometimes made the bright sunlight more subdued (“quelled”), sometimes blocked the light entirely. By “leaping sun” he may mean the illusion caused by the moving of branches and fluttering of leaves, which makes the light seen through them seem to leap from place to place; or he may mean simply the sun rising in the East and passing over the line of trees (they were oriented in a northwesterly direction) to sink again in the West.

Not one of the trees was spared, he tells us, not one that “dandled ["dangled"] a sandalled shadow.” He seems to liken the trees to a person dangling a sandalled foot lightly against the water, he may mean simply the “footprint” of the shadow on shore and water, or he even may, as some say (though it seems rather unlikely), be referring to the interlacing shadows of branches, likened to the lacings on a sandal. He says the shadow “swam or sank on meadow and river…and bank,” meaning the shadow appeared both on the surface and beneath the surface of the water, as well as rising or falling with the little swells and depressions in the land.

When he calls the bank “wind-wandering” and “weed-winding,” we may wonder if he intends “wind-” in the first case to have a short “i,” meaning “breeze,” or if he intends it with a long “i” (meaning “meandering”) as used in “weed-winding.” I think he means “wind” as in “breeze,” — signifiying not only that the wind wanders along the bank but also that the bank wanders like the wind. And when he says “weed-winding bank,” he seems to again use a double meaning, signifying the weeds winding (tangling) on the bank, as well as the bank wandering like a weed (the Thames curves at Binsey). We should not be surprised at the vagueness of Hopkins, who seems to often leave us with multiple and intertwining possibilities of meaning.

Then Hopkins laments,

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:

“Oh,” he says, if we only knew what we do when we delve (“dig) or hew (“cut”) Nature, when we “hack and rack the growing green.” Hopkins uses the word “rack” here in an unusual sense that is based more on its meaning as a noun (“destruction, ruin”) than on its usual meaning as a verb.

The rural countryside is so tender that to touch “her,” given that she/it is so “slender” (meaning “delicate, sensitive” here) is as risky as pricking the smooth ball of the human eye, which can destroy it. So even if we mean to mend (“repair”) Nature, we often instead merely do harm when we dig or excavate. There are abundant examples of the results of interfering with Nature, some of them well intended, some not — in the history of human interaction with the natural environment, and we see them still in the daily news.

And then, having altered Nature with hacking and digging,

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Those who come after cannot guess how beautiful the countryside had been before humans got at it. Only ten or twelve strokes of havoc (“destruction, disorder”), ten or twelve strokes of an axe, can “unselve” (un-self, “take away the character of, ruin”) the sweet especial (“special, pre-eminent”) rural country scene. And Hopkins emphasizes his recollection of the beauty that had been at Binsey but was no more by repeating,

“Sweet especial rural scene.”

“Binsey Poplars” is one of those Hopkins poems that is rather simple in subject but complicated by his unusual use of language. Nonetheless, in spite of his occasional vagueness and implied multiple meanings, the overall sense of the poem is quite clear, and we can easily relate to his feelings on the matter.

Nonetheless, we should be aware that though Hopkins knew poplars well poetically, he did not know them well botanically. European poplars (Populus tremula) decline and decay within a period of about 100-150 years, requiring replacement by replanting if one wants to maintain an avenue of them. In fact not long after Hopkins passed through the apparent devastation of the felled Binsey poplars, they were replanted. By 2004 the poplars at Binsey had again begun to decline, and so replanting was begun again. So in this case, the “sweet especial rural scene” was more resilient than Hopkins knew.

That does not, however, obviate the point of his poem, which is that humans should be more sensitive to Nature, to natural beauty, and to what is done to it. We can see what happens when humans abuse Nature in countless cases of destruction and disaster that are immeasurably more difficult to mend than the cutting of the poplars at Binsey.

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In the spring of 1880 Gerard Manley Hopkins was working as a Catholic priest in a slum district of Liverpool, a district which, at that time, was a very unpleasant place with an appallingly high disease and death rate.

This was in the days before the car, a time when dray horses — “work” horses — hauled goods in wooden wagons with iron-rimmed wheels. Work horses are strikingly unlike ordinary horses; they are high and massive, standing some six feet high at the shoulder — and very strong.

Today’s poem is an odd combination; on the one hand it is quite businesslike, dealing matter-of-factly with the rites and services a Catholic priest was expected, as his duty, to provide to the seriously ill, but behind that it seems to be a tender and rather loving meditation on the death of one particular man.

That man was Felix Spencer, a sturdily-built young farrier. A farrier was one who could do the blacksmith’s work of making horseshoes, fitting and nailing them to the horse’s hooves, as well as undertaking the skilled trimming and tending of the hooves. It was a very “masculine” profession in feeling and required a good deal of strength as well as practical anatomical knowledge of horses.

Felix Spencer, in spite of his imposing physical build, came down with tuberculosis, which in those days and the damp British climate often proved fatal — at the young age of 31 he died. In this poem Hopkins changes the surname Spencer to “Randal.”

Let’s look at the poem part by part:


Felix Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Hopkins ponders the death of Felix Randal, and he puts it in the form of two questions:
1. “O is he dead then?”

2. “Is my duty as priest to him ended…?” But he does not stop there; he recalls “his mould (“kind,” “form”) of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome,” he sees in memory the sturdy body of Felix, handsome in a hardy, well-built and imposing way. But he sees also the changes wrought by illness — that sturdy body “pining, pining,” meaning declining and weakening. And finally he sees the time when about four ultimately fatal physical disorders (what we call today “complications”) manifested in his body (“fleshed there”). These disorders all struggled with one another and ultimately killed the poor man, so ill near the end that his mind had become confused (“reason rambled in it”). Though it may seem peculiar to us, Hopkins puts the question mark Not after “my duty all ended,” but all the way at the end of the long description of the body and its fading.

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

The illness, as we can easily imagine, was just too much for the young man as his body broke down. He lost his calm and cursed and swore, but became more resigned to death (“but mended”) after “being anointed and all,” that is, after having received the Catholic rite of extreme unction during which a person in danger of death was marked with blessed oil on his forehead. Hopkins believed Felix had actually begun to become more spiritual (“a heavenly heart began”) some months earlier when Hopkins had given him (“tendered to him”) the Eucharist, the bread Catholics believe to be changed into the body of Jesus, which Hopkins calls “our sweet reprieve and ransom.”

Hopkins finishes the verse with an exclamation:
“Ah, well, God rest him all road ever he offended!” Hopkins is using “rest” here with a double meaning. First he means “God keep him,” using “rest” with the meaning it has in the old Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”; second he means “God give him rest,” as is sung in the mass for the dead:

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine…
“Rest eternal give them, Lord…”

And Hopkins’ wish is that God may keep Felix and give him rest “all road ever he offended.” Here Hopkins uses a regional northern English usage, ” all road” here meaning ” all ways.” So the meaning is, “May God give him peace and rest no matter all the ways in which he may have offended in life.”

Hopkins continues his pondering:

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

Hopkins remarks on his visits to Felix in a general way, saying “This seeing the sick endears them to us” — we develop an affection for the ill when we visit them and see their suffering, yet it also “endears” us — not only endearing us to the ill, but we tend to become better, more compassionate ourselves. Hopkins had comforted Felix with soothing words (“My tongue had taught thee comfort”), had laid his hand upon him fondly (touch had quenched thy tears,” and the tears Felix shed also touched Hopkins deeply, as we see in the lamenting, simple words, “child, Felix, poor Felix Randal.” Hopkins had developed a real affection for the man, and I suspect that he is underplaying it here because he does not want to admit its depth to himself or to others — remember that Hopkins was homosexual. He seems to have been struck by how different a man Felix was in form and function from the quiet, physically undeveloped and bookish nature of Hopkins himself.

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Hopkins ponders how far Felix was, in the weak and broken condition of his last days, from the boisterous years of his previous life when he stood working at the “random grim forge.” “Random” here is used in its old meaning of “with great force or violence,” and “grim” in its old sense of “fierce.” Hopkins deliberately blurs the application of the adjectives so that they apply not only to the fiery forge but also to the hammering of the horseshoe on the anvil and to Felix himself. Hopkins sees Felix standing, powerful and grim, before the fierce fire of the forge, violently beating the white-hot metal of the horseshoes with great force behind the blows of the hammer.

There he stood in those happier, earlier days, “powerful amidst peers,” that is, he stood strong amid the strength of fire and iron and massive horses, as well as being strong among other sturdy men of his kind. He could have had no forethought in those days of strength of his future illness and final fatal weakness. So blissfully unaware of what lay in store for him, he fettled ( using “fettle in its sense of “to make ready”) a horseshoe for the great, gray drayhorse (a horse that pulls a dray, a large wagon for transporting goods). Hopkins calls the horseshoe “his (the horse’s) bright and battering sandle,” because horseshoes not only become bright when they are forged white-hot, but also become bright when polished by wear. The horseshoe is “battering” not only because the farrier batters it with a hammer when making it, but also because the iron shoe batters against the cobblestones of the streets as the horse pulls the wagon.

I suspect that Hopkins is merely using “sandle” here because it is a word he likes (he uses it elsewhere), and because it makes a pleasant contrast when combined with the word “battering”; but some think he is also referring to a particular type of 19th century horseshoe that was once literally called a “sandal.”

Well, that is the poem. I do not think it is one of his best, and that, I suspect, is because Hopkins held back a bit, being of two minds, either consciously or unconsciously, about revealing to himself and to others too much about his feelings concerning the once “hardy-handsome” Felix Spencer — “Felix Randal” in the poem. But of course we must be careful not to read too much into this.

As he often does, Hopkins makes things more difficult than need be by his liking for old meanings of words and unusual expressions, but without that he would not be Hopkins, would he?


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