In previous postings we have seen the ups and downs of the “religious” life of Gerard Manley Hopkins displayed in his verse. You will recall that he was a convert to Catholicism who became a Jesuit, then spent a good part of his life suffering from depression. We see his “ups” in poems such as Pied Beauty and The Windhover, and the “downs” in others like the dark I Wake to Feel the Fell of Night and in the one we look at today, which is titled Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord, If I Contend.
It takes its title from the first verse of the biblical book of Jeremiah, chapter 12, as recorded in the Latin Vulgate:
Iustus quidem tu es Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen iusta loquar ad te: quare via impiorum prosperatur; bene est omnibus qui praevaricantur et inique agunt?
In the Douai-Rheims translation used by Catholics in Hopkins’ day, that would be:
Thou indeed, O Lord, art just, if I plead with thee, but yet I will speak what is just to thee: Why doth the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly?
Where the Douai has “plead,” Hopkins prefers “contend”:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Hopkins, dissatisfied and unhappy, is complaining to his god. “Contend” means here to argue one’s case against another, to struggle against another. In this case Hopkins is arguing with his deity. He tells him, “Yes, you are just, but what I argue is just too.” He asks why “sinners” — those who do evil — seem to prosper and do well in the world, while everything Hopkins himself tries to do (“all I endeavor”) or accomplish ends in disappointment.
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?
Hopkins speaks bluntly, even though he does it in Elizabethan English, using “wert” (were), “wouldst” (would) and “dost” (do) and “thou” (you): “If you were my enemy,” he tells his god, “I think you could hardly treat me any worse than you are treating me now as my friend.”
Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause.
Hopkins complains that the “sots” (the foolish, with undertones of one addicted to something such as alcohol) and thralls (servants) of lust (the strong desire for material objects and pleasures) gain more and get more out of their actions in a few “spare” (here he means random and casual) hours than Hopkins does in devoting his whole life to the service of God. There is an interesting contrast here between the words “spare,” (which can also mean “to save”) and “spend.”
Then Hopkins turns his eye to Nature, calling his god to look at it and see the contrast between its life and growth and the barren life Hopkins is suffering:
See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
The banks (raised areas, as along waterways and elsewhere) and brakes (thickets here; it can also mean drifts of bracken fern) have leafed out thickly (as in spring), and are again “laced” with fretty chervil. The chervil spoken of here is likely Anthriscus sylvestris, a common wild plant in Britain that blooms in spring with lacy, open umbels of small, white flowers. It is also called Cow Parsley.
There is a little reminiscence of Shakespeare in the words:
…and fresh wind shakes
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May…” (Sonnet 18)
Back to Hopkins:
birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
So, it is spring. Hopkins sees the green plants growing, the trees leafing out, and birds building nests. But he notes the he does not build, he does not contribute to newness and freshness, to new life and growth; instead he toils and strains like a laboring eunuch (servant unable to breed) to time (the passage of time). He gives birth to nothing, and feels his life is slipping away uselessly. He is, of course, a celibate Jesuit, but he means more than simple celibacy (Hopkins was in fact homosexual). He just feels that he is not accomplishing anything, not succeeding in anything, not flourishing at all — always failing. He breeds (gives birth to, creates) not a single thing that “wakes,” meaning nothing that survives and succeeds and grows and has life to it. He feels his existence is empty and useless, that he is unable to create anything significant or important.
He ends his argument — his complaint — with what is essentially a prayer:
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
He speaks to his god as his lord (“mine”), as the lord of life, and asks him “send my roots rain.” In modern English he might say, “Look, God, I’m dying out here. I desperately need some help.” He compares himself to a plant suffering in drought, on the verge of perishing, which is why he asks God to send rain — to give him some help — some spiritual nourishment — that might allow him to refresh himself and finally be able to flourish and grow and begin to actually live. We see from this that Hopkins did not consider his unhappy existence real living.
It is not a cheerful or a particularly hopeful poem, but Hopkins, as we have seen in earlier postings, had periods of deep and agonizing depression. No wonder he felt that his god was giving him the “short end of the stick.”