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.