NO WORST, THERE IS NONE: World-anguish in Gerard Manley Hopkins

In an earlier posting, I briefly discussed the “cliffs of fall” part of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and have felt ever since the incompleteness of not having included the first part of the poem as well.  So with this posting I hope to fill that gap.

The poem is generally known by its first line, No Worst, There is None.  It is one of the “dark night of the soul” poems written by Hopkins in his fits of depression.

I will discuss it part by part:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

There is nothing worse than this, Hopkins laments.

This pain is “pitched past pitch of grief,” meaning it is considerably beyond the point of grief.  To “pitch” means to fix or place something on a scale of degree, like the “pitch” of a note in music.  It also means to “throw” so we have an undertone in this of an emotional scale that casts one into a painful intensity far beyond that of ordinary grief.

Further, the waves of emotional pain, having been “schooled at forepangs,” that is, seemingly having learned from lesser pains that preceded them, will consequently be even more painful, will “wilder wring.”  “Wring” here has the sense of a tight, painful squeezing or twisting, in the old sense of “wringing” someone’s neck, like wringing water from a wet cloth.  So in this beginning Hopkins is complaining that the anguish of his mental pain is far beyond that of ordinary grief, that each new wave of pain is worse than what preceded it, and it has reached the point of mental anguish where it could not be worse.

He cries out in the terms of his adopted Catholic religion.  “Comforter,” he asks, using an old term for the Holy Spirit,” “where is your comforting?”  And to Mary, a significant figure in Catholicism to whom much prayer was made, he says, “Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”  He bemoans the fact that the Comforter does not comfort, that Mary gives no relief.  His prayers for easing of his sorrow seem to achieve nothing, because the pain just continues even worse than before.

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’

His cries of pain heave, meaning they rise up like waves on  the sea, and they do so “herds-long,” that is, like a multitude of cries that stretch out far in time, as though the cries were in “herds” like countless cattle.  But they “huddle in a main, a chief woe,” that is, they focus in one main pain, one major sorrow.  What is it?

Hopkins tells us that the chief focus of his anguish is “world-sorrow,” the same pain that is called in German Weltschmerz, that is, “the pain of the world,” the sorrow of simply existing in a world of suffering and transience.  If you read the earlier posting here on his poem Spring and Fall (“Margaret, are you grieving…”), then you will know that to Hopkins this “world-sorrow” is inherent in the human condition, that we live in a universe where nothing lasts, and no joy is secure or permanent.

He tells us that his cries of sorrow

…on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’

That is, his laments come from the anguish of being “on an age-old anvil,” of being hammered repeatedly like iron on an anvil, and that anvil is, again, the human condition and its accompanying sorrows of birth, illness, death, and impermanence, as old as humanity itself.  Hammered by these blows of life, Hopkins jerks back from the repeated pains, crying out — wincing and “singing,” though we must not take this singing as anything pleasant, more a crying out like the ring of iron struck by a hammer on an anvil in a blacksmith’s shop.

Hopkins adds that this pain nonetheless will “Lull, then leave off.”  it will reach its peak of pain, then it will quiet, will stop (“leave off”), at least for a time.  It is as though in its fury, the pain cannot hesitate, (“no lingering,”) but must be “fell” (piercing and intensely painful), because “force” (short for “perforce” here, meaning “of necessity”) it must be brief.  So we see that these fits of depression, as intensely painful as they are, come and go.  But when they come, Hopkins is indeed in abyssal anguish over them, lamenting and crying out for relief.

Then he tells us that this pain comes, in reality, from within the individual, from within the human mind:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who never hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

He is telling us that the mind has dark abysses that terrify the sensitive soul, that those who have not experienced these depths of depression really have no idea what it is like. He tells us our small “durance,” the small period in which we last and live, or we can say our “endurance,” cannot cope with such depths of dismalness. A wretched being so afflicted is served only by a kind of cold comfort amid a whirlwind of negativity, and that poor comfort — the “lull” of which he speaks — is that life ends in death, and each day ends in sleep. Not a great encouragement, and Hopkins, who suffered from terrible depression, obviously found little cheer in it.


3 thoughts on “NO WORST, THERE IS NONE: World-anguish in Gerard Manley Hopkins

  1. Catherine Madsen

    Thanks for this analysis. Re: the line “No worst, there is none,” the meaning is surely not “There is nothing worse than this” but “There is ALWAYS something worse than the worst we can imagine.” Hopkins is echoing lines from King Lear, Act IV Scene i:

    [Aside] O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?
    I am worse than e’er I was.

    And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
    So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

    Hopkins can’t know how much worse the “more pangs” will be than the “forepangs,” and this is part of the desperation of the experience; there is no limit to suffering. Except perhaps the exhaustion of death or sleep, whichever comes first.

    In this connection it’s interesting to look at Kipling’s “Hymn to Physical Pain”; it doesn’t have the intense compression of a Hopkins sonnet or of the lines from Lear, but it does assert that emotional/spiritual pain is in some sense even more terrible than physical pain. See

  2. Hokku - Old and New

    I feel a deep, deep, pain knowing that after I am gone my children will be left with an ocean filled with plastic…dead animals choking on it, land filled with solid waste, toxic to all life forms, air filled with nuclear fallout as a result of a dictator’s fantasy, and global temperatures that humans can not withstand. Is this pain worse than Hopkins’? Who knows.

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