A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Poetry Time: Hopkins

When TOF was in high school, he (along with his fellow scholars) was assigned to write a term paper on a selected English writer. Unlike most of the others, the selection in his case was made by Sister. She selected for his edification Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet of whom TOF had not hitherto heard of. (Sister had the firm belief that TOF would one day become a Jesuit, and Hopkins was a Jesuit. In the end, the Jesuits lucked out.)

This was not the poem, but one TOF selected more or less at random for the blog. It is one of several untitled poems, apparently written while Hopkins was suffering from clinical depression, with its accompanying sleeplessness and despair. Like all of Hopkins' poems, it is meant to be read aloud.

'I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day'
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
   With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

   I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
   Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Hopkins was a verbal poet, and said his poems were to be recited, not read. He also used isochronous feet, meaning the poem is broken into segments that take the same amount of time to speak, no matter how many syllables they might have. (Unstressed syllables could get swallowed up.) He called this "sprung rhythm." He also tended to use only words of Anglo-Saxon origin - no French need apply - and you can often find the double alliteration of Anglo-Saxon poetry. In each half-line there is usually the same stressed consonant. For example:

I wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, not Day.
This night! what Sights you, heart, Saw; Ways you Went! 

He also invents words, as the poet of Beowulf called the sea the "whale-road". In this poem we find the word "selfyeast," which is a seriously cool wordpacking of what would otherwise be a longer phrase. When it came to squeezing meaning into the smallest compass of words, none did it better.

There is evidence from his letters that Hopkins was feeling clinical depression, separated from his family as he was by his conversion to Catholicism and his move from England to Ireland. He seems to equate his prayers (to dearest him) to dead letters, sent but not answered, and compares his depression to what the damned must feel in their eternal separation.

There are spiritual exercises the Jesuits engage in, and one set is for dealing with "desolation."


  1. Further evidence all the cool people love Anglo-Saxon, 'though it's not exactly the best read for a melancholy person in a damp climate. (It's raining, so shall I read this sorrowful elegy or that crushing tragedy?) I usually can't read Hopkins for more than about 8 minutes. But Michael O'Brien does cool stuff with Hopkins in "The Father's Tale."

  2. A very direct and to-the-point account reminiscent of Modern Ideas in Chess. With this important exception, that it isn't about chess and is only 'modern' if the present age is actually post-modern, which it isn't. B+

  3. True, GMH preferred words of Anglo-Saxon derivation. But he used the French "dauphin" and "chevalier" in "The Windhover". I believe "sillion" there is French, too.


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