Feb 4, 2012
Before leaving Roethke’s “In a Dark Time,” Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort” and his other terrible sonnets, I want to say that, even with Hopkins’ marvelous imagery and diction, I have an important reservation about these poems in the light of T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on Hamlet and the hero's need for an "objective correlative." Surely Hopkins scholars have hit upon this connection, but I’ve done no research on the matter and don’t know whom to footnote, if anyone. As far as I know, I’m coming to this on my own.
Eliot points out that audiences need to see objective causes for a character’s emotions. Otherwise, the literature runs the risk, at the very least, of becoming histrionic melodrama, a mere soap opera, an emotional flood far greater than any observable stimulus for it.
That not only confuses an audience, but it’s also intellectually dishonest. Some may ask why we should disapprove of soap opera? First, because we can’t follow it logically or emotionally; it’s a screaming mess of ink blots left on our doorstep, and we are not Dr. Freud.
But secondly and just importantly, hysteria is intellectually dishonest. Its emotionality claims to have terrible causes, but the alleged victim refuses to, or at least is unable to, show us those causes in any kind of convincing detail. So our tendency toward empathy is thwarted, in which case we might ask why we are reading.
As I noted before, the nineteenth-century diction along with Hopkins’ interest in linguistic and metrical experiments will be off-putting to many. Remember that my reason for posting “Carrion Comfort” is its similarity to Roethke's "In a Dark Time," discussed here January 24. Especially if we allow ourselves to read into "Carrion Comfort" the fact that Hopkins converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest, his struggle with faith would seem unusually powerful compared to many human struggles.
Isn't he seeing his God as a betraying bully? The human trusted, "kissed the rod/" the "Hand" and "heart" and wants to cheer God along with his life-altering decision to give himself entirely to that particular greater force. In turn, that force has "flung" him, "trod" upon him, and, returning to the first stanza, has once again stepped upon him with his "wring-world right foot rock," has laid His "lionlimb against me," has scanned the speaker's "bruised bones" with "darksome devouring eyes." Eagle, hawk, owl, buzzard, flesh-eater: how's that for a new image of the Lord?
But don’t we need to know what has caused this despair and sense of betrayal? It's not enough to say we've all had crises of faith, or never had faith to begin with, so we don't need to know whence the agony for this speaker, this poet. We do need to know.
However, it's the specificity, individuality, and originality of Hopkins’ images, the ways he perceives and describes his anguish and betrayal, that convince me he really felt them, honestly experienced a crisis and its attendant despair.
It also matters that in Lines 2-4, the speaker struggles so hard to survive his pain, to stand up against Despair, to man up, as we might say these days.
But that's still not the same as knowing the full story. What happened to cause this speaker's year-long sense of alienation from and victimization by a predatory godhead?
Unless I completely misunderstand T.S. Eliot's sense of the objective correlative, that is precisely at issue in "Carrion Comfort" and some other poems among Hopkins' "terrible sonnets." He gives us the emotional consequence of a crisis, with little or no picture or plot for the cause and development of that final turmoil. There is much more demonstration of emotion than clear stimulation for it, just as Eliot claims about Hamlet (and I agree).
The result in Hopkins is a sense of emotional exaggeration. A man is rolling on the floor, bemoaning something terrible that's happened to him, but he cannot tell us what. For all we know, the speaker might be more at fault than God is.
With that in mind, here is "Carrion Comfort" once again. There is so much to admire in the poet's intensity, and the originality and muscularity of his language, that it seems a shame we cannot be fully satisfied that we know something important about the man and whether his own "cause is just." If someone called Hopkins a drama queen, I'd try to defend him; I’d say you don’t pluck this language out of thin air; he's labored at his words in order to make them feel authentic and unique. I'd also feel I was walking on stilts.
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
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.
Posted by Banjo52 at 8:45 PM