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.


somewords said...

Can the O. C. be an allusion to another story that sets the scene? It would take awhile for me to prove it but I hear language and ideas from Hamlet and Gertrude's argument here. In the back story he wants to open her eyes to the rottenness of her actions. Here, the narrator is speaking to despair and the carrion at the same time: both of them are exposing his guts. Fundamentally, I read a betrayal from a parent that leaves the child dead but remembering.

Banjo52 said...

So Hopkins' God as the parent? That's probably gonna work for me, Somewords. And I love this: "both of them are exposing his guts."

That produces another thought for me: even if I can hear black comedy in the idea of G.M. Hopkins as roadkill, kicked and pecked at by God, I can't laugh for long. It's too uncomfortable. In spite of my criticism, he's too much all of us, including me.

Happy Sunday . . . ?

Banjo52 said...

Somewords, I see that I didn't answer your opening question. So: I don't know. I'd guess it depends on how much the audience can really, really share in, empathize with, that back story.

In Hamlet, I don't. It must be my fault, but it's comforting to know T.S. Eliot has my very problem. I think I've said somewhere in the history of Banjo (and everyone's memorized it!) that I feel better for having concluded that Hamlet, the play, is a lot of histrionics justified by a string of great speeches, great poetry. (Six of them, I think--and I read that idea somewhere; it's not my own brilliance or foolishness). Last time I saw Hamlet, I re-realized, I just do not care about this guy; he's a concept, not flesh and blood, the way Lear is, for me. But I sure like a lot of the words, the prince's and others'.

somewords said...

He says he can feast no more on the despair that was handed to him. Hamlet has that picture of his father that he makes Gertrude compare to his stepfather. The despair is in the downhill slide from one to another. Since both Hamlet and Hopkins are "[wishing] day come, not choose not to be", maybe they are both trying to live with that new picture? Maybe that is the way to move ahead, though they are not yet near forgiving their god/parent?

Banjo52 said...

Interesting stuff, as always. And no argument here. Not to belabor it, all I can say is, I often respond to Hopkins' reaches outward (the joyous ones too, like "The Windhover"), but Hamlet not so much. Maybe it's all completely subjective? I think of Altadenahiker's comment last time about pieces of literature tugging at our sleeves . . .

Anonymous said...

Well, see, I just skip over the god stuff, because it means nothing to me. I just heard the voice, the 3 a.m. voice. And it seemed rather as a ballet, someone standing, then sinking, flattened, then rising, maybe to the knees.

Speaking of soap operas, Eugene O'Neil has always irritated me for that reason (and more). But, enjoy this clip from Christopher Plummer. I did. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRi-R2-XDuU

Banjo52 said...

AH, of all your regular and fine comments here, surely that's your best, especially that third sentence.
Thank you!

Others, if you have ten minutes (or just a couple) to look at the Christopher Plummer video, I think you'll be glad you did. It's absolutely gripping and makes me want to go back to Long Day's Journey all over again, talky though it is. I wonder if I've under-estimated Plummer all these years.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

this is the Plummer video link via AH

Banjo52 said...

PA, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, I agree with you about Plummer. I never thought anyone could beat Richardson in anything. (And no one ever will in Fallen Idol.) But this part -- Plummer stunned me. And I wonder what it's like to be an actor acting an actor acting.

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