CARRION COMFORT: HOPKINS WRESTLES WITH GOD

We have seen in earlier postings how the 19th century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from terrible episodes of depression, the worst aspects of which were depicted in his poem I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark.BonnatJac.

We may see today’s poem as a mate to that other work, because it deals with the same topic, but in a slightly different way. It has the odd title Carrion Comfort.

We should first make sure we know what is meant by carrion. Put very simply, it means dead and decaying flesh. It has a strong undertone of something very unpleasant, as when we speak of vultures feeding on carrion — on dead animals. Many humans, too, eat dead animals, but tend to avoid any signs of decay in what they eat. That did not stop me from now and then remarking to meal mates, when I was younger, “I see you are eating another slice of dead cow.”

But back to the poem.

Let’s take it, as usual, part by part. I will divide the first stanza into two parts for convenience:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Hopkins, regarding his fits of depression, decides not to give in to them. He calls his deep depression by the capitalized name “Despair,” and he speaks to it. He describes Despair as “carrion comfort,” saying he will not let his mind concentrate on despair, which would be like trying to nourish his soul/mind on foul and decaying flesh. That, he does not feel, would be a true and lasting comfort — only the inferior comfort of surrender.

Further, Hopkins says, he will not untwist the slack last threads of man in himself. By that he means he will not take away the last few strands of manly strength he has in him, even though the thread made from those few strands that remain is “slack,” is loose and seems weak. So Hopkins is saying he will not give up what little strength he has left, he will not give in to despair. His comparison of strength to frayed thread is based upon the making of thread and yarn and rope by twisting many strands of fiber together to make the thread or rope strong. But Hopkins says he has only a few strands left in his frayed thread, and he will not let those untwist and give up what strength is left to him.

He adds,

ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Not only will Hopkins not give up his last strands of strength, but he also refuses, when most wearied, most exhausted by depression, to just give up and cry “I can no more” — I am unable to struggle further. On the contrary, he says, “I can.” He can do something: he can hope, he can wish to the day to come, not only the literal day, but also day used as a metaphor for the light of peace and release as opposed to the dark night of his anguished depression. And, very importantly, Hopkins has the option of NOT choosing “not to be.” He is saying he is still free and strong enough to say he will not choose suicide.

In what follows, we shall see that Hopkins tends to combine his notion of Despair with his notion of God. This is a view of his deity similar to that in parts of the “Old Testament,” the Hebrew Scriptures, in which, as in the Book of Job, God can not only help humans, but can also afflict them terribly with suffering and pain:

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

He speaks to Despair/God, whom he visualizes as a terrible, huge lion-beast. Hopkins asks why God would rudely place and push his world-shaking (“wring-world”) right foot upon him, like the huge, heavy, clawed paw of a lion. And why would God/Despair look at Hopkins’ bruised body (“bones”) with “darksome devouring eyes,” as though he would eat him up? And why would he “fan” (blow against) Hopkins mental pains like windy storms (“turns of tempest”), while Hopkins lies (heaped) there, frantic to avoid those mental pains, and wishing to flee, to escape them?

There are subtle biblical hints in the background here. The “Lion” image calls to mind Jesus, one of whose titles is “Lion of Judah.” And Hopkins probably had, in the back of his mind, a reference to Psalm 22 as it is in the Catholic Douai version of the Bible, in particular lines 14 and 15:

“They have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring.
I am poured out like water; and all my bones are scattered. My heart is become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels.”

Christians traditionally considered that a prophecy of the suffering of Jesus, and Hopkins likely had it in mind in regard to his own sufferings. But paradoxically, I suspect that also in the background of Hopkins’ “lion” metaphor is this biblical phrase from I Peter 5:8:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:

Given his pain, we should not be surprised if Hopkins was feeling both good and evil oppressing him. And in fact in the Old Testament, God was generally considered one who ultimately brought both good and evil to humans, as in the book of Job, when God and Satan play a cruel little game to see just how much suffering God’s servant Job could take without cursing God

Now Hopkins tries to religiously justify his anguish, his own deep depression, to himself. Why does God make him suffer the pains of depression?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

I cannot help feeling there is something psychologically unhealthy, something masochistic, about Hopkin’s justification of his own sufferings here. He tells himself he suffers

That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.

He is saying that God makes him suffer so that he may be cleaned and purified, just as one beats the chaff (seed coverings, etc.) away from stalks of grain after it is harvested, so that the grain might be “sheer and clear.” Hopkins is using “sheer” here in its sense of “pure, unadulterated.” He says God is whipping him with the pains of depression just as grain is beaten in threshing, to clean and purify it.

And what effect does that justification of his own despair have on Hopkins? He says,

Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

Put into everyday English, it means:

“No, in all that toil, in all that ‘coil’ [meaning here ‘disturbance/worry/trouble], it seems that since I ‘kissed the rod,’ or rather the hand holding that rod, see, my heart [mind] has drunk strength [like an animal lapping liquid], has ‘stolen’ [here he means ‘cleverly taken’] joy, and would laugh and cheer.

Hopkins is referring to an old expression, to “kiss the hand that holds the rod,” in other words, to be grateful for the punishment that is used to correct one’s behavior. It comes from the days when children would be beaten with a wooden rod, like a willow switch or a stick, when they had “been bad.” “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is another old expression from the time when children were physically whipped (a time which is not past in some places).

Hopkins is saying, then, that he has changed his attitude toward his depression, that instead of raging against it or giving up entirely to despair and killing himself, he has since decided to regard his depression as a purifying punishment from God, a suffering that is actually beneficial to him because it cleanses him, and so he metaphorically kisses the hand of God that punishes him (“holds the rod.”) — he is grateful for his own suffering.

Quite honestly, I doubt that Hopkins really was grateful for his deep sufferings, but he had converted to Catholicism and was a Jesuit, and no doubt felt he had no choice but to either accept his pain as the good will of God, or else to give up and end his life. So this is Hopkins trying to talk himself into believing that his suffering is ultimately good for him, and a sign of God’s love.

Hopkins tells us that with his attitude changed, he now “would cheer.” And so he asks whom he would cheer (or who he would cheer, for those of you who prefer getting rid of the old “whom” form):

Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Who does he cheer then? Does he cheer the “hero” (meaning God) whose divine actions (“heaven-handling) threw Hopkins down into despair — God, whose foot metaphorically stepped upon, trampled Hopkins? Or does Hopkins cheer himself, the “me” that fought against Despair/God? Which one is it? Is it each, both of them? He implies by the last line that he cheers everything together — God, who gave him suffering, Hopkins himself, who refuses to give in to his deep despair, and everything that happened on that night, or rather that year of his anguish that is now over (now done darkness), that night when Hopkins (“I wretch”) lay on his bed metaphorically wrestling with despair, with his God.

You will note that Hopkins uses repetition for effect, speaking of the time when he, in his wretchedness, lay

wrestling with (my God!) my God.

The “my God!” in parentheses is to be taken as an exclamation of wonder and awe over the fact that in fighting against the suffering of his depression, Hopkins has come to the realization, “My God! I have been wrestling with my God!” So the meaning of the first “My God!” is like saying “Good grief!” or “Wow!” — “Wow! I was wrestling with God!”

This notion of wrestling with God comes from the story of the patriarch Jacob in Genesis, chapter 32. In that story, a man comes to Jacob by night and wrestles with him. When morning comes, the man asks to be released, but Jacob will not release him until the man blesses him. Jacob realizes that the man is actually God. Knowing that, we see that it is upon this biblical story of a wrestling match with God by night that Hopkins has based his poem. He is saying that “Just as Jacob wrestled with God by night and endured until day, and was blessed, so in my dark struggle with despair I will not give in, because I have really been wrestling with God, and he will bless me.”

Of course Hopkins is just being poetic here, and it is difficult to say to what extent this “kissing the hand that holds the rod” maneuver really brought any comfort to him. But no doubt in his fits of depression he was willing to grasp at anything.

David

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