I WAKE AND FEEL THE FELL OF DARK: HOPKINS’ DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

Here is another poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that rather difficult impressionistic poet whose use of language, though it makes his verses a task to unravel, is nonetheless brilliant.

Today’s study is one of his dark poems.  Hopkins suffered from severe depression, and he expressed it in verse.  This one is titled I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark.

Hopkins never shies away from using archaic and near forgotten words, and he uses one right off in the first line.  It is the word “fell,” which, as a noun, means “bitterness.”

As usual, I will divide the poem into parts for easier discussion:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day ,
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

Hopkins has awakened in the middle of the night:  “I wake and feel the fell [bitterness, animosity] of night, not day.”  He seems to have had nightmares, no doubt followed by fretting and worrying on waking, unable to sleep again:  “O what black hours we have spent / This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!”  The “we” is literary; he is speaking of his “heart,” meaning his emotion-affected mind.  It must have seen terrible things that night, and he has awakened in great mental distress.  And he will continue to suffer even more, because he cannot go back to sleep, but must wait and fret and have gloomy thoughts and images in his mind through the remaining hours of darkness before the light of dawn finally comes — “And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.”

But now look; with the next lines we find he is taking the experience of that one night and applying it to years of dark depression in his life:

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

With witness I speak this” means he has experienced it himself, witnessed it firsthand.  And now he tells us that when he says “O what black hours we have spent / This night!,” what he means by hours is really years — years of horrible, dark depression.  And then he tells us something very revealing about his inner life.  I mentioned in a previous posting that Hopkins became a Jesuit, a Catholic “religious,” and for him it proved to be a big mistake.  It seems to have just magnified his dark moods.  He says,

And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

He is speaking, of course, of prayers to God [dearest him] for help, and that help never comes.  His countless cries go unheeded, and he realizes that all of those prayers have been “like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.”  His innumerable prayers have gone off into the darkness and no reply came back, as though they had never even been received.  God is not there, not nearby; there is only a feeling of his absence, as though he lives not among us, but “away” — unreachable.  That is really a dark night of the soul for someone with religious belief.  He keeps calling out to his deity, but no answer comes, no matter how deep Hopkins’ pain and anguish.  Hopkins is speaking also in a broader sense of the pain and anguish and cries innumerable of countless other suffering humans.

Now Hopkins tells us his state of mind, his condition, and we may consider it physical as well as mental, because one of the results of constant stress and depression is very poor digestion:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

I am gall [a very bitter substance, a synonym of “fell” in the first line], I am heartburn.”  What Hopkins feels mentally, he also feels physically.  And he thinks that is what God’s will for him is.  God wants him to taste bitterness, and that bitterness has become Hopkins’ life, Hopkins himself:  “My taste was me“:

God’s most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

He feels that his deep mental and physical distress is something that God built into his very nature; his bones built it in him, his flesh filled with it, his blood brimmed with “the curse,” — his dark depression.  But by “the curse,” he also means the rather literalistic Christian belief that the first parents of mankind were cursed for disobeying God.  In Genesis God says to Adam, who represents humankind,

Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.”

That is “God’s most deep decree.”

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Hopkins also blames himself:  “Selfyeast” of spirit” is something in himself that taints and embitters him.  It is the opposite of an infusion of a divine spirit from outside that might enliven and inspire.  It is his gloomy self that provides a negative yeast that gradually permeates and sours his dull [flat, sluggish, somewhat gloomy] dough, by which he means that it spoils his life.  In the Bible yeast (leaven) is used as an analogy for sin, which if it gets into dough– into life — will gradually spread through and affect the whole mass of it.  Hopkins feels that it is his “self” that was tainted to begin with, and that “self-yeast” has spread through and soured his whole life.  What a gloomy mood he must have been in, feeling that his dark emotional state was both the will of God and his own doing, a part of his own being and nature!

In spite of his negative mental state, however, he nonetheless thinks that things could be worse.  He thinks of those the “Church” considers “lost”:

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

We should read those lines like this:

The lost are like this, and their scourge [is] to be
As I am [being my own scourge], their sweating selves; but worse.

The lost are like this, and it is their scourge, as it is mine, to be our sweating selves — only it is even worse for them than for me …

The lost are like he is, and it is their punishment to be their “sweating” [loosely used here to mean toiling and suffering] selves, just as that is the scourge of Hopkins — to be his suffering self; only he feels that for the “lost,” things are even worse, probably because they are not “churched” as he is — so he seems to retain some shreds of his belief in spite of the fact that God never answers.

Hopkins, we may say in summarizing the poem, is suffering from an attack of excessive ego.  By that I do not mean arrogance, but I mean being too much wrapped up in his own sense of being a “self” separate from everything else.  He feels even his God to be so separate and distant that talking to him is like sending letters to a dead letter office.  It is paradoxical that depression is in general really a condition — which Hopkins realizes on some level in this poem — of being too absorbed, for whatever reason, in one’s self, one’s own thoughts and emotions and fears, never being able to step outside them for even a moment — a Hell of one’s own making, as he says in so many words in his “Selfyeast” metaphor.  The poem is like the cry of the old Johnny Rivers song, “Gotta get out of myself.”  Only Hopkins, in his dark mood, unfortunately sees no way out.

Fortunately, I should remind readers, there are ways out of such self-absorption, but Hopkins, in his time and place, was not in a position to find them, and suffered greatly as a consequence.

David

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