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?