Gerard Manley Hopkins – feeling the fell of dark

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night!

Much of the wonderful poetry of the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins sprung out of the certainty of his religious belief and his joy in God’s creation, but in the collection known as the Terrible Sonnets, or the Sonnets of Desolation, we read and experience the feelings about his emotional state. They express no doubt about the existence of God, but, rather as the biographer Robert Bernard Martin puts it, something much more terrifying – the certainty that God does exist and an almost equal certainty that God’s mercy does not extend to the poet himself, or, that God is unaware of the individual or careless of their fate. The inspiration to write the sonnets is born from terror and here religion does not offer comfort. Hopkins in a letter to Robert Bridges about the sonnets says that ‘four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.’

The poetry could be seen as one way that Hopkins could contain his mental dread and hold on to his sanity by accommodating the chaos of his unconscious through the composition and order of writing the verse. Martin writes:

‘It seems part of a recurrent pattern in his life, the necessity to give rigorous shape to what was frightening and dimly understood, just as he had chosen the most demanding of orders when he became a Jesuit. The sonnets did not quell the rebel emotions that disturbed him, any more than his vocation removed temptation; both, however, made the ramping beasts tractable.’

Any suggestion of suicide and self-destruction is resisted and in this verse Hopkins seems to touch rock bottom and then turn to life:

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.


And in a later poem Hopkins turns to the comfort of the Resurrection that transcends depression and insanity:


Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.

                            Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                            Is immortal diamond.