Poetry Sundays: Gerard Manley Hopkins
No, 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.
One of the things I love about Gerard Manley Hopkins is you can’t just skim his work. You have to feast and savor for it to make any sense at all. When I delve into this poem, I feel like it perfectly encapsulates my own feelings in the struggle for faith. He begins by promising he won’t give in to despair, or give up saying “I can no more” — however feebly, he can go on. I have had many moments as a member of the church, as a daughter of God, when I have thought “I can’t fight this fight any longer.” But he does go on, he promises to do something to hope, to not end his life. As a Mormon and a feminist I often feel I am running again and again against a wall until I am battered and torn. At times I feel I cannot continue the fight. Yet I can. I can hope. I can stay. If I am of late too weary to speak and push and beg, I can stay. I can do that much.
The poet then asks God why the terrible year of despair is allowed to happen. Why would God’s all-powerful foot seem poised to crush? Why do we feel battered, as by a lion’s paw? Why the raging tempest when we desperately seek shelter and peace? The poet provides an answer as well; to separate the wheat from the chaff. Not that there are some people who are chaff, who must be discarded, but that each of us, in our hearts, must be refined and purified as we become like God. The poet expresses gratitude first for the punishment (kissed the rod), but then corrects himself and praises the hand of God, that gave the harrowing experience that ultimately brought joy.
Yet even then he questions. Are we to cheer and praise God for trying us? Should we thank the church for the opportunity of a trial of faith? Or ourselves for continuing the fight? Oh which one? Is it both?
When I question the status quo, do I question God or merely humans? By speaking out do I turn towards God, or away from God? When I act in faith, believing God is the giver of good things, and I do not receive, what does that mean? Is it me and my faith? Is it God? Is it humans? When God is peace, but I do not find peace in God’s church, how do I reach reconciliation? Does God want me to despair? Is sorrow and hopelessness good for me, or destroying me?
That night, that year of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.