Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, 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, cheer.
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
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 this sonnet 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 10, when the poem first shifts into the past tense. In the second stanza, there is a disturbing immediacy in the poet’s urgent protests against God’s unrelenting persecution; only in line 10 does the poet reveal that the trial has already passed. In light of this recognition, the reader must reevaluate the preceding lines. What is the order of cause and effect? Why does Hopkins use the present tense for the past events of the poem?
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 10. One might assume that the “toil” and “coil” Hopkins has experienced since he “kissed the rod” are precisely this struggle for understanding, after the experience of complete abjection before God forced his spirit into submission. It is out of that second struggle, in which he acknowledges both God’s and his own roles in the earlier, more wrenching struggle, that his heart is able to recover. On the other hand, we might read the phrase “since (seems) I kissed the rod” differently. In light of that puzzling parenthetical “seems,” one might decide that all the violence of the second quatrain has taken place after Hopkins thought he had made his peace with God. In that case, the crux of the theological problem would lie with the inscrutability of a God who would inflict such suffering on even Hopkins, a priest who had devoted his life to God’s service.