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 bruised 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 poem opens with a rejection of Despair, that “carrion comfort.” To “feast” on despair, Hopkins avers, would be like eating something dead and vile. Nor will the poet unravel his “last strands” of humanity by giving up hope, though he is close to hopelessness and the strands are already “slack.” He makes the feeble but determined assertion “I can,” and then goes on to explore what that assertion might mean, what basic action or spiritual gesture might serve to counteract despair: doing “something” that expresses hope, even if it is as minimal as wishing for morning or as negative as deciding not to kill himself.
Having skirted the pit of despair, the poet questions God about the suffering that has drawn him so close to hopelessness. He asks why God would, so roughly, with his powerful right foot, “rock” his world and send him writhing. Why would God swipe at him with the dull and indiscriminate blow of a “lionlimb”? Why, then, maliciously look at him lying there with “bruised bones” and further torment him with gales of “tempest,” while he cowers, “heaped there,” wanting to escape but exhausted and with nowhere to run?
Then the poet attempts an answer. The “tempest” was actually a harvest wind, shucking the “chaff” from the wheat to expose the kernels of goodness concealed within. In patient acceptance of divine vengeance, the poet has “kissed the rod” of God’s punishment—or rather, he corrects himself, he has kissed the hand that held that rod. Since then he has suffered “toil” and “coil,” yet the act of acceptance has also brought a resurgence of optimism, mounting gradually to a “cheer.” But this word prompts another round of questioning (“Cheer whom though?”); now that he knows that God’s rough treatment of him was for his own good, should he now applaud God for having treated him so? Or does he congratulate himself for having struggled, for having met God directly? Or both? The speaker, however far he has come from the brink of despair, is perhaps still trying to come to terms with that dark “year” of suffering in which he struggled with God.
Hopkins wrote the sonnet “Carrion Comfort” at a time when he had just emerged from a long period of depression and inner anguish. The poem is carefully designed to surprise the reader and dramatize the moment of recognition that the speaker experiences in coming to terms with his own spiritual struggle. The interpretation of the poem depends in large measure on how one reads the transitions between the poem’s three sections (the first quatrain, the second quatrain, and the sestet). In particular, ascertaining the poem’s chronology can be troubling, in part because Hopkins withholds an important piece of chronological information until line
The order of the events described in the first two quatrains seems to be reversed in the telling. Presumably, the struggle against despair in lines one through four provided a sequel to the violence depicted in lines five through eight. Yet the fact that this second quatrain is written in interrogative form brings it into the present of the poem. It both tells of past events and asks about their meaning from a retrospective vantage (as if from the present). In this interpretation, the poem contains two different narrative lines superimposed on one another.
The first deals with a “now done” crisis of suffering and resistance, in which the poet struggled in futility against God. The second “plot” takes place later than the first but is also, one hopes, nearing consummation via the thinking processes that have contributed to the making of the poem itself. This plot is the poet’s attempt to understand the initial crisis—and it is this plot that takes place in the “present” of the poem. In this latter narrative, the content of the second quatrain does temporally follow that of the first; it constitutes the (partly self-pitying) questions that still remain even after the poet has decided not to give up hope. These four lines mark the problem of understanding still at hand for the poet, a problem that will then be resolved in the sestet. There, the poet abandons the tone of impassioned self-protection and seeks theological explanations for suffering and spiritual struggle.
Another chronological ambiguity centers on line
There is also a way of reading the chronology of the poem more continuously. The punishments in the second quatrain are perhaps inflicted by God in retaliation against the poet’s (insufficient) first resolution against despair. In this reading, the poem would imply that the conclusions in the first stanza are unacceptable to God—the decision to “not choose not to be” might seem willful and self-regarding, as compared to the humility and prostration before God’s will at which the poet afterward arrives. In this reading, the renewal of questioning in the last lines might look like a further lapse, as the struggle for understanding continues in the poet’s own heart even though he ought to stand in total acceptance of God’s will.
From the beginning, the poem works to contrast active and passive behavior, and to weigh the two against each other. Despair is a kind of extreme passivity, and a serious sin in Christian doctrine. Hopkins graphically dramatizes the difference between this despair on the one hand and some hopeful spiritual activity on the other. In the eighth line we see the speaker as a pile of bones lying “heaped there,” dehumanized, cowering, panicked, and struggling desperately for survival. The sestet depicts the slow emergence from out of that heap, like an animal rising into a human being: lapping tentatively at strength as though it were restorative water, then seizing joy surreptitiously and, finally, more willfully—with a “laugh” and a “cheer.”
This is the purified heart rising out of the pile of bones, with more agency than in the foregoing image of the wheat being stripped of its chaff by a fortuitous wind. In the self-pitying language of the second quatrain, the speaker was a passive victim. However, in the later assessment, he decides that he too might deserve some credit for having battled it out with God, even if he felt comparatively helpless at the time. The image of kissing the rod, likewise, involves an act of self-subordination that is nevertheless an act, and not perfectly passive. Not only has this act resulted in a personal purification, but it has also given the speaker something else: a certain measure of joy or contentment.