September 05, 2006

A poem I love

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!

Carrion Comfort
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


on kate's comment sept 7 06 regarding title choice- interestingly enough hopkins did not name this title himself it was named after his death. niether did he originally put the hyphen between heaven and handling in line twelve. just fun facts

Posted by: peachy at February 28, 2008 08:47 PM

Dear Pam,

I, too, haven't read Gerard Manley Hopkins since college. I picked up my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and looked him up. Luckily in this anthology they have a few pages of introduction to each poet.
In Hopkin's intro the author writes: "Most of his poems set anguish and rapture against each other, either in the same poem or in parallel poems....Hopkins is at his best in poems where the combat is continued to the last moment, as in 'Not, I'll Not, Carrion Comfort,' where Christ is adversary as well as saviour. This poetry needs pain as the principal ingredient in joy, but the pain is more convincing."
I think it's interesting that Hopkins titled his poem "Carrion Comfort" instead of "That My Chaff Might Fly". In effect what he asserts that he will NOT do, that is indulge in a feast of carrion comfort, is actually what he does do throughout most of the poem. He does despair, he does question God. His portrait of God is like that of a wild animal "With darksome devouring eyes" and even the wheat imagery is of food as if our souls would be eaten by God after the chaff had fallen away (through a kind of torture). This is not a gentle God, but a God who inspires fear and resorts to violence. And yet Hopkins refers to his God as a "hero". God winnows us, yes, but not as gently as a field hand. To be free of the soul's chaff full of regrets and mistakes and wrongdoing is great but I can't agree that violence should be the means to a good end. And by the end of the poem he is still wrestling with God and his Despair (Carrion Comfort) is intact. He hasn't overcome the obstacle. What is admirable is that he won't give up, but what exactly he is fighting in God is unclear. The poem leaves me with a lot of questions. Why is God "terrible" "With darksome devouring eyes"? What has God done to be so fierce? Why does Hopkins worship a vicious God? The poem itself is great. I love the language and the passion, but I cannot agree with the perspective behind it. At times my voices could be compared to Hopkins feral God but I learned to place my conception of God above them. I can't think of God as an abuser. The voices, on the other hand, I know that they are abusive and I refuse to wrestle with them, but I'm often open to discussion...

Stay well,

Kate :)

Posted by: Kate K. at September 7, 2006 07:16 PM

Dear Pam,
I treasure your advice to neophytes to poetry such as Hopkins'. As an English major, I was permanently brainwashed by well meaning professors who seemed unable to read his poetry without searching for evidence of his personal creation, "sprung rhythm". By stressing technique, in my opinion, they missed the passion and stuggle that is evident in many of Hopkins'poems, a stuggle which I view as inevitable for an Anglican convert to Catholicism who was ordained a Jesuit,the order that is credited with being the intelligencia and imfamous questioners of their relationship with God.
Allowing your readers to read with no preconceived notions or prejudice, gave them the opportunity to experience Hopkins on their own terms and in their own way. This is the only way to read poetry, or "What's a heaven for?"
Thank you for sharing your expertise,
With ever growing admiration, Paula

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at September 6, 2006 11:01 AM

I, too, love this Hopkins poem, and your beautiful interpretation. I have forwarded your last 3 entries to L., so you will likely be hearing from him.

You are nearly chaff-free, my friend...your light shines like golden grain.

Love, Ava

Posted by: ava hayes at September 6, 2006 12:29 AM

Oh, my! Last night I was reading Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain" (a little bit disapprovingly; I prefer the older, post-Seven Storey Mountain Merton, who kept company with Buddhist monks) and he mentioned discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins . . . I thought back to long-ago college days, as I was certain I had not read Hopkins since, but could recall no bit of his poetry clearly. And now here is a meaty Hopkins poem on my very doorstep, so to speak! I would not have had patience enough to read the author's work when I was very young, but this poem, certainly, has much meaning for me now.

Posted by: Cynthia at September 5, 2006 09:31 PM

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