Jan 29, 2012

Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Carrion Comfort": Unique Agonies

I think the best of Hopkins’ terrible sonnets is “Carrion Comfort.”  Its diction and imagery may be eccentric and difficult, or even off-putting, but they seem entirely unique to this particular speaker and this poet, without sacrificing universality.  

Maybe all who have felt themselves on a psychological precipice at one time or another can feel some connection to "Carrion Comfort," have known something such as Hopkins' sense of betrayal and desertion. He converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest, so it makes sense that his Important Other is his deity. Others have probably felt such abandonment and bullying by different persons or forces—a lover or parent or friend or employer or system of beliefs and values. But aren't some of us like this lonely poet in feeling abused, kicked when we are already down, thanks to someone or something we trusted?

                 CARRION COMFORT
                 by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

             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.
After expressing some reservations last time about Theodore Roethke's "In a Dark Time," my main point now is that the particular details in “Carrion Comfort” feel authentic, not generic. They are specific to the quirky mind, ear, and eye of Hopkins. The imagery and phrasing reflect a soul’s chaos and feeling of abandonment by God; perhaps only Hopkins could have felt it in just this way. If that makes the poem demanding, it also makes it seem genuine, in spite of all the poetic shenanigans.
Hopkins' language and probably his mind are unusually idiosyncratic, even 120 years after his death, so I hesitate to ask Roethke (last post) or any other poet to match Hopkins' originality or intensity. What I was trying to say about “In a Dark Time” was that a few of Roethke’s images or utterances sounded as if they’d been bought from the poetry kiosk down the street. To the extent that they sound like something many poets would say, or have said, they lose at least a little punch and sense of an honest, unique psyche’s raw cries.

I’ll await responses before trying to clarify further.  Let me also repeat that I find “In a Dark Time” a good poem and good Roethke, though not as good as his extraordinary“The Waking”--or “I Knew a Woman” and maybe some others.


RuneE said...

I must admit that this one was a bit heavy for me to unwrangle. Maybe I'm not deep enough. But I can appreciate that first photo :-)

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, I can't imagine trying to get into Hopkins from another language! Thanks for trying, and thanks for the compliment. I feel attached to that guy, somehow, though I'd never seen him before and haven't since.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

this one is the proverbial "white canvas"

I see that there is a structure employed - a certain use of word repetition...

but it's as if words that I relate to having a certain meaning have taken on another appearance. Not just the idea of "tree" (Wittgenstein?) but a shifting context to boot.

"my thought of thee ran up a tree of cock tails fancy yonder" <---
something like that

I'm flummoxed, and I read it through three times

Banjo52 said...

PA, "my thought of thee ran up a tree of cock tails fancy yonder" <---
Maybe if you can come up with satire like that, you don't need Hopkins in your life . . . We'll see how this goes. I might break down a few particulars I like in the poem, or may just send up a white flag and move on in a couple of days.

Anonymous said...

No, no, I happen to love it. Or parts, thereof. I'll be back.

Anonymous said...

Ok, this probably adds little to the conversation, but I feel compelled to quote my favorite fragments:

these last strands of man

Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

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

I think the poet is generous and brave. And rubs shoulders with FSF. “In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o' clock in the morning, day after day." -- When quoted, most people drop the 'day after day.' Which is a shame; it removes the landscape from the misery.

Banjo52 said...

Great points, AH. Thanks. Naturally, I like the Fitzgerald comparison. And I too love lines 2-4, the refusal to give in, that plea to "man up" as we now say.

And the brief resolution (if it is one) in the last line impresses me too--that dark night of the soul is a "now done darkness," but it still astonishes (frightens?) him to consider just what was going on, what he was involved in: "I lay wrestling with (my God!) my God."

I think it's important not to take a too literal or too traditionally Christian approach to the godhead here. Maybe something like, "I lay wrestling with that Gigantic Force, and now that wrestling is over, resolved, somehow. My God!"

Carole said...

Good blog. I have a real soft spot for this Manley Hopkins poem http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2011/12/great-poem-by-manley-hopkins.html

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