Mar 17, 2010



“Carrion Comfort” is one of the “Terrible Sonnets,” poems of religious questioning, doubt and anguish by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest in Victorian England and Ireland. The poem also illustrates some points I was trying to make in response to the visitor comments on March 15 and 16, concerning Dean Young’s poem, as well as poetry in general.

Some grim, sad, and depressing poems are also difficult, perhaps never completely understood by Reader X. Yet he might love such a poem or at least some of it if it offers gifts along the way, probably images, lines, passages and music to feel connected to, but also thoughts and emotions, conveying something of what Reader X had thought or felt himself, but would never have considered uttering in this way.

A Victorian poet (1844-1889), Hopkins’ language can be, or seem at first, self-conscious, jerky, grandiose. His experiments with language can be so dramatic, so bold that many scholars say he is (along with Emily Dickinson and Robert Browning) more modern than Victorian in manner and maybe thought as well. I take that as high praise, but I also worry that some readers will find these experiments excessive, or even an unintended self-parody. So let’s keep in mind how bizarrely unconventional Hopkins’ style is for its era. Let’s cut him some slack, for it’s in these very excesses that we’re likely to find the “wow factor” as he blazes new trails in poetry.

Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Hopkins doesn’t strike me as all that different, conceptually, from the Romantics. In nature, he finds not only the variety, beauty, and awe of the physical details, but also a revelation of God. I see a blend of Christianity and Pantheism (though for honesty’s sake, I must add that I don’t know enough about either of those schools to make such a statement).

With Hopkins, I allow myself another privilege: violating the New Criticism’s "Biographical Fallacy" (and you thought I was timid!). I find it unusually important to remember that Hopkins was a Catholic by conversion—that is, he presumably knew something about the faith before committing to it. He believed in it so completely that he became a Jesuit priest. So, while I don’t usually like reading much of an author’s life into his work, in this case I’m moved by the fact that this writer is not just you, me, or Joe Schmoe having a crisis of faith, but a man who lived his religion as completely as Hopkins did.

Maybe I need to add that, if someone hasn’t had a few crises of faith, I don’t put much stock in that person’s faith (including atheism). So I can only try to imagine how agonizing it must have been for the devout Hopkins when he had these times of wondering, fear, intense doubt.

Back to context: I was not planning to post Hopkins any time soon, but I think he illustrates what I was trying to say one and two days ago about poets who leave plenty of gems along the way to a poem's closure and wholeness. We might not like, agree with, or understand the entire poem, but we can be bowled over by individual images, lines, passages, or the work’s overall music, atmosphere, texture. In turn, those gifts might keep us coming back until we feel comfortable with more and more of its parts, or even its entirety.

Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Brenda's Arizona said...

What caused his despair? I can't find it in his words, though it is probably there. What is it?

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I don't know his biography well enough to give that kind of historical answer. However--and as a return to the New Criticism--I think your question is excellent in posing the problem of cause and effect in literature.

I'm pretty sure I remember correctly that T.S. Eliot coined the phrase, "objective correlative" meaning an identifiable, "objective" cause or source for the emotional content in a piece. (He was talking about Hamlet, arguing that the reason Hamlet gives us fits is that there's not enough objective correlative for his passionate grief, rage, and vengeance. Hey, he was T.S. Eliot; surely you didn't expect him to say, "Hamlet, get over yourself.").

But Eliot's idea might apply here. As widespread as crises of faith are for people, maybe we still need to know what brought it on for this particular speaker. Or maybe we can say, "Oh, another crisis of faith. That's nice. Same old reasons, I'm sure. Well, at least this Hopkins fellow expresses it in a new way. I say, Ethel, do you suppose he's speaking in tongues?"

So I don't know if "it" IS there "in his words." We get the emotional after-effect, but not much that's specific about what brought it on in the first place.

I wonder what Hopkins scholars have said about this--in ALL the "terrible sonnets." Maybe someday I'll try to read about it; for now I think you should research it. Results due Monday.

Brenda's Arizona said...

OK, it's not Monday, but I did some research. How sad to spend a life in depression/despair fed by religion - or was it his religion fed his depression/despair? Maybe 'religion' isn't the word I want... Is it his faith? his beliefs? It is like his depression was self-forced... but then many depressions are self-forced.

Anyway, I wanted to GMH to move on to beauty, but he just didn't want to. So my blue-book test book is wasted. I only would use one page of it to say "GMH isn't a happy guy, is he?"

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, by self-forced, I assume you mean he brought it on himself, or at least allowed it to happen? Could be. You've probably now done more research on him than I have. What was the role of religion in causing his depression or spells of melancholy?

I have two reservations. Nowadays, wouldn't professionals say that most or all forms of depression are caused by brain chemistry as much as environment or the patient's own lack of strength?

Secondly, I wonder if GMH is any more depressed than other major writers. The stories go on and on. Might be a topic for a post someday?

Anonymous said...

Hopkins, though a devout Jesuit priest, was a repressed homosexual. Despite all this, he never violated the vows he made upon joining the clergy. I would definitely consider this as a factor to the poor man's internal struggle.

Lovers' Lane