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The poem below is one of my favorites, but it is not an easy poem to understand. Hopkins makes up words to fit his needs and while they suggest what he means, they do not literally mean anything. So "translation" is difficult and a matter of personal interpretation more often than not. My advice to new readers is to read the poem several times silently then try reading it aloud, giving it some grammatical sense, even where you think it has none because of the new words. If you read it as if it makes sense, you'll be surprised at how much sense it actually does make. Then read my explanation and interpretation below. Or if you want to, read those first and then the poem. Enjoy!
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1918)
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.
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?
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.
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.
The first line essentially says that the narrator, let's assume it is Hopkins though it may not be, refuses to indulge in despair. Despair is a "carrion comfort" -- comfort likened to dead flesh that he will not "feast" on. The juxtaposition of carrion and feast is so gruesome that it makes despair seem almost repulsive. He will not untwist or undo the "last strands of man in me" or cry "I can no more", ie "I can't take it any longer!" He will not give into despair and kill himself. He can, he can take it, he can live through it, "hope, wish (the) day (light would) come, not choose not to be" But who is "thou terrible"? Despair? I happen to think he is hinting at something else. I think he means God and this is why: "why would you hit me with "thy wring-world right foot rock?" or with your devouring eyes look over my bruised bones and in the midst of my struggles make things worse, with me in a heap, "frantic to avoid thee and flee." Now I believe that he is frantic as a despairing man is to avoid God and flee from faith. To give in to despair is to reject God, after all, it's a way of saying to God: you don't matter to me, I hate the life you gave me...
But all this is a question. Why, WHY would you do all this to me? And the answer: So that my chaff might fly -- chaff is the useless part of the wheat that has to be winnowed away before the grain can be eaten. This is done by sweeping up the grain into the air, where the chaff, being very light, wafts away on the breeze and the heavier grain falls to the ground. One's chaff ought to fly, it is useless and extra baggage one doesn't need. So that "my grain", the good parts of me, can "lie sheer and clear."
No, in all that work, that struggle (coil) since it seems "I kissed the rod" -- meaning the rod of punishment, the rod of Spare the rod and spoil the child... but not a rod actually, a hand. It was a hand he kissed; you kiss the hand (ring) of the Pope, God's representative on earth (Hopkins was a Catholic priest) and since then his heart lapped strength, like a kitten laps milk, stole joy, would laugh and cheer. But whom would he cheer? The guy (hero) whose handling from heaven flung him and whose foot stomped him? "Or me that fought him?" That night, that year, of darkness, which is over now, when I, a wretch, wrestled with (oh my god!) God.
So what is this poem "about"? Well, for me it's about doubt and despair and God testing Hopkins by taking on the guise of despair to make him struggle with the worst God can throw at him. This is done in order for him to see that he can make it, can survive and be better for it (chaff-free), and to know that his faith can survive and come out the other side, having wrestled not so much with despair as with Despair, and God himself.
Reminds me of another who wrestled with God...Posted by pamwagg at September 5, 2006 07:05 PM