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“All Things Counter”: Consolation/Desolation in the Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins

The works of Gerard Manley Hopkins reveal a man whose imagination was in search of, in need of, and sensitive to, the presence of God: in the natural world, in the Eucharist, and in what he refers to as his “selfbeing.” As a Jesuit, he was formed by and committed to St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises,” including the “discernment of spirits” through daily practices and regular retreats. The polar movements of the soul towards, on the one hand, “consolation,” whereby one’s soul is “inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord,” feels sorrow for sin, and finds increase of faith, hope, and charity, and, on the other hand, “desolation,” in which the soul is darkened, in turmoil, and disquieted, counter to consolation, are movements observable in his works, particularly in those written after his taking of vows, upon which I will focus. While the influence of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises is not explicit in Hopkins’ poetry, much of his poetry has been shaped by his commitment to the practice of spiritual discernment.

I will examine his work in light of this theme of consolation and desolation, based on the Ignatian premise that “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of this to save their souls” (Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises), and, towards this end, must consistently labor to discern the presence of God’s grace. Hopkins, according to his soul’s longing for communion with God above all else, labored to communicate, and to meet, this need through the language of poetry (although not exclusively through poetry).

To develop this theme, I’ll begin with the poem alluded to in this paper’s title: “Pied Beauty,” in which Hopkins appreciates and praises God for “dappled things,” and for “All things counter,” such as the opposites of “swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” He places earthbound imagery in the skies (“for skies of couple-color as a brinded cow”) and finds the elevating beauty of “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim” in the depths. Whether Hopkins intended to or not, these verses, in praise of God from whom natural and variegated beauty “fathers forth,” also imply a significant aspect of Ignatian spirituality. While we may (naively) restrict God’s presence to our times of pleasure and prosperity, and God’s absence to times of pain and poverty, Ignatius applies a finer instrument of theological discernment, finding consolation in desolation and desolation in consolation, just as Hopkins places the heavenly in the mundane and vice versa.

In states of consolation, Ignatius instructs the practitioner to “consider how he or she will act in future desolation, and store up new strength for that time” and to humble and lower himself as far as possible, and “reflect how little he is worth in time of desolation when that grace or consolation is absent.” The necessity for this self-humbling in the midst of consolation being (at least in part) vigilance against the “evil angel,” who is able to inspire states of apparent consolation, bringing “good and holy thoughts” towards “damnable intention and malice.”

Likewise, consolation is to be sought in desolation: “one who is in desolation should reflect that with the sufficient grace already available he or she can do much to resist all hostile forces, by drawing strength from our Creator and Lord.”

Ignatius identifies three principal reasons why we find ourselves in desolation. The first reason that consolation is withdrawn from us is due to our own fault, through our own negligence or laxity, cooperating in any of the various deceptions and intentions of the evil spirit. The second possible reason for our desolation is as a trial, by which God examines the soul’s devotion when it is deprived of “much compensation by way of consolations and increased graces.” And the third reason:

Is to give us a true recognition and understanding, in order to make us perceive interiorly that we cannot by ourselves bring on or retain increased devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; and further, that all these are a gift and grace from God our Lord; and still further, that they are granted to keep us from building our nest in a house which belongs to Another, by puffing up our minds with pride or vainglory through which we attribute the devotion or other features of spiritual consolation to ourselves.

Thus, even desolation may serve the purposes of God: to make humble, to expand and deepen gratitude, to prove (probare), to chastise, or to increase one’s awareness of one’s dependence on God. And even in consolation, the believer is to be mindful of its impermanence in this life, and to remain vigilant lest the evil spirit take advantage of one’s aroused affections.


Consolation in Beauty

As Hopkins glorifies the unchangeable God for all things “pied,” “dappled,” or “counter,” having been a Jesuit for nearly a decade at the time of this composition, we might ask of the poet how far to take his images as metaphor. If he intends to praise God for all his works, which is suggested by the variety of contrasting images throughout the poem, then even in the states of elation and consolation that Hopkins felt while contemplating and composing on nature as muse, desolation itself, being a means of grace according to St. Ignatius, must also be praised, at least insofar as God’s purposes are achieved through it. Hopkins’ work oftentimes reveals this active discernment process of finding the “touch” and the “finger” of God (The Wreck of the Deutschland, stanza 1) in times of both consolation and desolation.

He repeatedly demonstrates his keen awareness of the hiddenness and mystery of God’s presence in the world: “Though he is under the world’s splendour and wonder, His mystery must be instressed,” he writes in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (st. 5). One of Hopkins’ coinages, “instressed,” as interpreted by John Robinson, means the “rush of feeling” which accompanies the mental grasp or the “deep recognition” of some aspect of external reality (In Extremity: A Study of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1980). The poet seems to experience this rush In “God’s Grandeur”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?


Although “charged” with signs of God’s presence, it is not necessarily immediately recognizable: while the flashes of light from shook foil cannot escape our attention, nevertheless “It will flame out” (italics mine) suggests that it isn’t necessarily always doing so; and as “it gathers to a greatness,” it can be a slow process requiring careful observation before it becomes obvious. Nevertheless, the poet is in awe: he does see it, regardless of whether or not anyone else pays heed to (“reck”) God’s majesty and authority (“his rod”).


The latter half of this first stanza reads:


Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

                        And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


One can almost hear an echo of the divine sorrow in Genesis 6:6: “and the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart,” resolving in the following verse to “blot out man” whom he “created from the face of the ground” through his command of the forces of nature. To his credit, Hopkins does not play God, refraining from condemning humankind for its blindness and destruction of the land; he does, instead, discern the beauty that persists in Creation despite industrial blight:


And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs-

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


Just as Noah was given the rainbow in the sky, as a sign of the covenant between God and all living creatures, that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9:11), here we see God’s movement of Hopkins’ soul, through the beauty of nature, towards consolation, appearing also as a vision in the sky: that God the Holy Ghost, warm and bright as the sun, continues to renew, refresh, and recreate the face of the world darkened by “man’s smudge” and “smell”, as surely as morning follows night, and spring winter, revealing God’s faithfulness to his promise.


The Wreck

In Hopkins’ ode “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” inspired by the shipwreck off the coast of England in a winter storm, among whose casualties were five Franciscan nuns to whose “happy memory” the poem was dedicated, the poet wrestles with God to find meaning in suffering, both his and that of others. Reflecting on certain (although not explicit) experiences of his own spiritual struggle, he imagines the presence of God amidst the tragedy of shipwreck. I will show both how he uses the central character of the “tall nun” to demonstrate God’s purpose for the second principle reason for desolation: that of trial and proving; and also, how it is that God uses her to reach out to those who suffer from the first principle reason for desolation: negligence, in their duty to “praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.”

The wreck had added significance to Hopkins due to the fact that the sisters had faced religious persecution for their Catholic faith, having been exiled by the German Protestant government. As a convert to the Catholic Church from the Anglican faith of his family and countrymen, and therefore desirous of the reunion of the Church of England with Rome, he shares a communion with these women that the most significant people in his life do not likewise share. This disunity, among other things, is a source of pain and isolation that becomes increasingly apparent in later works, discussed below.

Ignatius explains the purpose of the Spiritual Exercises with the subheading: “to overcome oneself, and to order one’s life, without reaching a decision through some disordered affection.” Hopkins, in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” shares this vision of the spiritual life. The poem opens with the exclamation “Thou mastering me God!” and at the end of “part the first,” pleading for God to “forge thy will” and to “make mercy in all of us, out of us all mastery,” and to “melt him but master him still.” To conquer oneself is to be mastered by God, conforming one’s will through spiritual exercise or struggle, amidst the vicissitudes of life, according to the limits and boundaries of order set forth by God, standing firm even in the face of death.

Thus, Hopkins addresses God with awe-and-fear-inspiring terms and imagery: “thy terror, O Christ, O God” (St. 2), and “the frown of his face before me, the hurtle of hell behind” (st. 3). The “lord of living and dead,” is not only the “sway of the sea” and “master of the tides,” but also its limit: “World’s strand,” and “the ground of being and granite of it” (st. 32). We live precariously in a world as unpredictable and dangerous as the sea, at the mercy of God’s providence and bound by its limits and laws, including our own mortality.

According to Ignatius, while all things on “earth are created for the human beings,” they are to be used not for our own ends, but “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord,” and by this means to save our souls. Thus, as the “principle and foundation” of the Spiritual Exercises, he writes:

I must make myself indifferent to all created things, in regards to everything which is left to my freedom of will and is not forbidden. Consequently, on my own part I ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters. I ought to desire and elect only the thing which is more conducive to the end for which I am created.

So in the midst of the shipwreck, in which some of the storm’s victims climbed into the rigging to escape the “buck and the flood of the wave,” it is “God’s cold” with which they fought, “and they could not and fell” to their deaths (sts. 15-17). God, who is “throned behind death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides,” is also he who “wrings” the “rebel” of “man’s malice.” It was even the “dark side” of God’s “blessing” that drove the Deutschland “not under (God’s) feathers nor ever as guessing/The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned…dead to the Kentish Knock” (sts. 12 and 14). While the storm and the sea are created “for man,” as are all things, they nevertheless belong to God, and are ultimately for his purposes, that whether facing health or sickness, life or death, honor or dishonor, our free will is to be oriented toward God’s praise, reverence, and service. Oriented towards our ultimate purpose in God, even “wrecking and storm” serve those same ends, as we will soon see.

The poem addresses similar themes as the Book of Job. Whereas in Job, in which God presents the chaos beasts Leviathan and Behemoth (chapters  40-41), Hopkins uses the sea and storm to demonstrate that which is impersonal, untameable, and deadly, within the created order. Such ominous presentations of God as Creation’s terrible and merciless master do not, of course, either in Job or The Wreck, exhaust the attributes of the divine person, but are precisely the perceptions of God that must be reckoned with in the face of tragedy and apparently meaningless or unjust suffering, if we are to discover the “Christ of the Father compassionate” (The Wreck, st. 33).

A significant difference between Job’s worldview and that of Hopkins is that, for Job, God is exclusively transcendent:


If I beheld the sun when it shined, or the moon walking in brightness; And

my heart hath been secretly enticed, or my mouth hath kissed my hand:

This also were an iniquity to be punished by the judge: for I should have

denied the God that is above (31:26-28, RSV).


Whereas for Hopkins, who writes “I kiss my hand/To the stars, lovely-asunder/Starlight, wafting him out of it” (st. 5), God is both transcendent and immanent, thus he is able to kiss his hand to the stars, discerning God’s presence in the natural world, remaining free of Job’s “iniquity.” In Job, the invisible, ineffable God eventually speaks to the man “out of the whirlwind” (38:1), revealing himself as above and beyond human notions of justice, whereas in Hopkins’ ode, it is Christ himself  (“ipse,” Latin intensive pronoun) who appears in the midst of the storm as “the who and the why” (st. 29). The “why” is far from obvious, however, and in that way, the poem is true-to-life. Hopkins makes us work if we are to derive any sense of clarity from these mysteries, which, as they were for Job, are “too wonderful” for us, and which, apart from revelation, we cannot understand (Job 42:3). In the midst of the storm, it is the presence of Christ who reveals God’s “lovely-felicitous Providence” (St. 31), his “mercy that outrides/ the all of water,” “the Father compassionate” (St. 33), whose coming here is “not in a dooms-day dazzle,” or “a lightning of fire/ hard-hurled,” rather “Kind, but royally reclaiming his own” (st. 34).

And, for Hopkins, this theophany is not merely a mystical, interior hearing or knowing (or even “seeing,” as Job eventually does [42:5]), but is embodied publicly in the person of one of the nuns, the poem’s central character (described as a “lioness” and “prophetess” in the 17th stanza), who was reported by eyewitnesses to have shown exceptional courage in the face of the storm as she stood and cried out for “Christ” to “come quickly” (st. 24). In the helplessness of their situation, Hopkins’ interpretation of her pleading for Christ to come quickly, to deliver them to their eternal salvation, could only possibly mean through death at the hands of the elements, which are “the cross to her” as she “calls Christ to her” (st. 24).

As refugees, fleeing religious persecution, “Loathed for a love men knew in them, banned by the land of their birth,” Hopkins sees the nuns as suffering with and for the persecuted and crucified Christ. He imagines the five sisters, led by the “prophetess,” as the five wounds of Christ, as sacrificial offerings (st. 22), “sisterly sealed in wild waters, to bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances” (st. 23). Through her courage, obedience, and faith, God’s “glory” was had in this particular nun (sts. 30-31).

Before we look again at St. Ignatius’ lessons of spiritual discernment, to help us understand how Hopkins is able to derive meaning from this tragedy, let us view the nuns’ actual journey, or exodus, as representative of the spiritual life.

The nuns, having been made to choose between allegiance to the German Empire and obedience to Christ, chose to serve Christ, being thence driven from their homeland by secular powers, towards their calling in Christ to continue to serve him in a Missouri convent hospital. Having fled persecution, being enabled by the grace of God to choose obedience rather than spiritual bondage, they journeyed toward freedom by serving Christ. This mirrors the spiritual life, as we travel from the spiritual bondage of sin towards heavenly virtue and reward. Throughout this journey we face both consolation and desolation, with the responsibility to remain faithful in each. This shipwreck represents a profound state of desolation, when the vicissitudes of life, all the forces of nature, seem to threaten survival or salvation.

Shipwrecked in the “flint-flaked, black-backed” sea, in the “wiry, white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow” which “spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps” (st. 13),


Hope had grown grey hairs,

Hope had mourning on,

Trenched with tears, carved with cares,

Hope was twelve hours gone;

And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day

Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,

And lives at last were washing away:

To the shrouds they took, -they shook

in the hurling and horrible airs (st. 15).


It is in this hopelessness, as the “night roared,” amidst “the heartbreak hearing a heart-broke rabble,” and a “woman’s wailing, the crying of a child without check,” that the “lioness” arises “breasting the babble,” towering “in the tumult” (St. 17), rearing “herself to divine ears” (St. 19) to call on Christ.

Let us recall that, according to St. Ignatius, desolation may be trial: “to test how much we are worth, that is, how far we will go in the service and praise of God, even without much compensation by way of consolations and increased graces.” Indeed, for Hopkins, God is “weighing the worth” of the nuns; in his sight the “storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily-showers – sweet heaven was astrew in them” (St. 21). For the omnipotent Lord of creation, the storm is a means of proving and claiming his faithful.

Furthermore, Ignatius affirms that it is through God’s grace that the one who is in desolation can “resist all hostile forces, by drawing strength from our Creator and Lord.” Therefore, Hopkins praises the faith of the nun:


Ah! there was a heart right!

There was single eye!”

Read the unshapeable shock night

And knew the who and the why;

Wording it how but by him that present and past,

Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?-

The Simon Peter of a soul!” to the blast

Tarpeian-fast, but a blown beacon of light (st. 29).


She is able to “read” the “shock night,” the storm, in order to discern the presence of God’s grace (“the who and the why”). And she is able to do this through Christ, he by whom “heaven and earth are word of” and “worded by.” Hopkins likens her to Simon Peter, recalling Matthew 16, in which after proclaiming Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus answers him “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” In the previous stanza Christ himself (“ipse”) was somehow discerned in the midst of the storm. Thus the nun merits her comparison to Simon Peter, in calling out for Christ to come quickly (st. 24), and then discerning the presence of Christ himself (st. 28), who could only have been revealed, not by normal human experience (“flesh and blood”), but by Christ’s “Father who is in heaven.” It is through Christ, that in the midst of the crisis she is given the fortitude to remain “Tarpeian-fast” in the face of the storm’s “blast” (a reference to the Tarpeian rock of Rome, symbolizing here the stability of her faith); and furthermore, not only firm in her own faith, but as “a blown beacon of light.” In other words, just as storm winds fan the flames of hilltop beacons as a warning to ships, her courageous cries for Christ to come quickly are a sign to the crewmen and passengers that Christ is the “who and the why” of both the storm and her cries.

For the divine presence is perceived as two-fold: as both “lightning and love,” as “winter and warm,” as the “Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung.” To the faithful, he is there for them to be tried and proven (“weighing the worth”; “royally reclaiming his own”; and to be bathed “in his fall-gold mercies”); whereas to the disobedient or faithless he is there with “wrecking and storm” to “wring the rebel” of “man’s malice” (St. 9), “to startle the poor sheep back” (St. 31), and as “all-fire glances” (St. 23).

It is difficult to imagine a more desperate situation than that aboard the shipwrecked Deutschland. In light of his own experience of spiritual struggle, reflected especially in stanzas 1-3, Hopkins employs the nun as the heroine who, in desolation, when “hope had grown grey hairs,” is nevertheless mastered by God through trial, showing how much she gives in service to God without such great pay of consolation and “increased graces.” Amidst desperation she insists on hope, revealing the mercy of God in the face of the merciless elements. Her witness amidst the wreck is in this sense therefore an apocalypse, a revelation of the Christocentric nature of reality, both transcendent and immanent, and the telos of the human person to praise, reverence, and serve God, no matter the circumstance, thereby achieving salvation.

Consider Ignatius’ second rule for the “Greater Discernment of Spirits”:

Only God our Lord can give the soul consolation without a preceding cause. For it is the prerogative of the Creator alone to enter the soul, depart from it, and cause a motion in it which draws the person wholly into love of his Divine Majesty. By “without a preceding cause” I mean without any previous perception or understanding of some object by means of which the consolation just mentioned might have been stimulated, through the intermediate activity of the person’s acts of understanding and willing.

The shipwreck itself allows no “preceding cause” for any movement towards consolation. One must be enabled by God to “read the unshapeable shock night,” discerning in the midst of darkness what Ignatius refers to as the movement of the “good angel,” by which, and only by which, God can be seen as both lightning and love, winter and warm. Through the storm, Christ, in his mercy, both proves the penitent and, through the prophetic voice of the nun, offers “an ark for the listener” (St. 33). Just as Christ himself plunged into the realm of the dead to liberate the souls of the just who died before Christ, here the nun becomes a ringing bell (st. 31) to those who are in need of conversion (represented in the poem as both the “unconfessed” German protestants or unbelievers, and the “English souls” of his countrymen). Hence, the shipwreck, the tempest, and the death of the persecuted sisters, are seen as both a “harvest” of faithful souls, and a call for repentance to “startle the poor sheep back!” (st. 31)


The “Sonnets of Desolation”

Ignatius’ third principle reason for desolation, quoted at length above, “to keep us from building our nest in a house which belongs to Another,” that we may know that spiritual consolation and great devotion are not ours to get or keep, pervades Hopkins’ later works. Several of these came, in his own words to his friend Robert Bridges, “unbidden and against my will,” (letter dated Sept. 1, 1885) and one which was “written in blood” (letter dated May 17, 1885).

Various letters from the last years of his life, spent in Dublin, overworked, underappreciated, isolated from family and friends, and depressed, help to frame the verses he wrote in that period. For example, in September of 1885, he wrote to Bridges:


In the life I lead now, which is one of a continually jaded and harassed mind, if in any leisure I try to do anything I make no way – nor with my work, alas! but so it must be…I can scarcely believe that…anything of mine will ever see the light – of publicity nor even of day…

…It kills me to be time’s eunuch and never to beget. After all I do not despair, things might change, anything may be; only there is no great appearance of it…soon I am afraid I shall be ground down to a state like this last spring’s and summer’s, when my spirits were so crushed that madness seemed to be making approaches – and nobody was to blame, except myself partly for not managing myself better…”


In February of 1887, also to Bridges: “Tomorrow morning I shall have been three years in Ireland, three hard wearying wasting wasted years.” In January of 1888, again to Bridges, and again of his inability “to produce anything at all,” he writes “all impulse fails me: I can give myself no sufficient reason for going on. Nothing comes: I am a eunuch – but it is for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”

Each of these excerpts point to the severity of the desolation that he finds himself in in these times, which he reveals, at least partially, to his loved ones; his poetry is, at times, even more intimate and dark. Even so, while there were indeed times that he seems to have lost hope for any immediate relief, there are also indications that he does not sink completely into existential despair.

Four of his sonnets from Ireland were written together on the front and back of a sheet of paper, suggesting, as Robinson claims, that they were “parts of a common process.” Taken together, they illustrate the depth of his desolation, his inability to lift himself out of it, and his hope that God can give him consolation.

The first, “To seem the stranger,” reveals his loneliness, lassitude, and depth of desolation, to which he has become resigned. It begins with Hopkins estranged from family: geographically, emotionally, and in faith:


To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life

Among strangers. Father and mother dear,

Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near

And he my peace/my parting, sword and strife.


Christ is both his peace, and is also he to whom obedience has resulted in estrangement from family (his “parting, sword and strife”; see Mt. 10:34-37). The following stanza reveals that, feeling exiled from his homeland, he is now viewing “England, whose honour O all my heart woos,” with fresh appreciation, calling her “wife to my creating thought.” He is now “weary” and “idle,” of no use to those he loves; too exhausted, perhaps, to be of any use even if he weren’t so far away – “In Ireland now” – as he begins the third stanza.


Here he describes himself “at a third remove,” referring to, as mentioned above, estrangement from family due to his faith, and geographically from his homeland; but also, thirdly, he refers to his creativity being misunderstood, ignored, or otherwise unappreciated. The poem ends in desolation, his prayers unheard, lonely, with no sense of accomplishment:


Only what word

Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban

Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,

Heard unheeded leaves me a lonely began.

The next poem, “I wake and feel,” begins in utter darkness, and by its end his sense of isolation has become soured with self-contempt:


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.


Even daylight is not light to him. We might contrast this with Psalm 139:12, in which the Psalmist declares of God: “But darkness shall not be dark to thee, and night shall be light all the day: the darkness thereof, and the light thereof are alike to thee” (DRB). God dwells in endless light, from which Hopkins clearly feels banished. While the Psalmist speaks to God directly, in the second person, Hopkins’ only mention of God in this poem is third person, as the giver of a “bitter” verdict (st. 3). And his agony expands beyond “this night”: “where I say hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent to dearest him who lives alas! away” (St. 2).


By the third stanza, the isolation we saw in “To seem the stranger,” has soured with self-contempt:


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.

Regardless of the ambiguity of the poem’s last lines, its ending is dismal:


I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.


He seems to be saying that either: he, like “the lost,” is his own “scourge”, just as theirs, although worse, is their own “sweating selves”; or, on the other hand, that it is his own “scourge” that, although similar, is “but worse” than theirs. If the former, then the hope that his punishment is slightly less than that of the damned is hardly comforting. And if the latter, and therefore to be read as hyperbole, his current anguish is made all the more terrible, being perceived by him as worse than eternal damnation. I suspect the ambiguity was intentional, illustrating the tormented confusion of one who, although devout, obedient, and faithful, suffers inexplicably, and without relief.

These are glimpses of the depths of his own desolation. On the same sheet of paper, however, Hopkins wrote “Patience, hard thing,” and “My own heart let me more have pity on.” In each of these, he indicates his awareness of his own inability to lift himself out of desolation, and his dependence on God’s providence. In the former, he contemplates what it is to have the theological virtue of longsuffering, the “patience” for which implies the “war” and the “wounds” necessary to develop the virtue, mentioned in the first stanza. By the third stanza we can almost feel him cringe as he asks for this patience, for God to bend his will to accept and endure his pain:


We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills

To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills

Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.


And further, that to him who is “patient”: “Patience fills his crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.” He applies knowledge as a means of coping with the sub-rational emotional experience of utter desolation. Norman McKenzie says of this “It seems rather to be an attempt to carry out the instructions in the Spiritual Exercises: ‘Let him who is in desolation strive to remain in patience, a virtue contrary to the troubles which harass him; and let him think that he will shortly be consoled’” (A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1981).

It is upon reflection that he is able to apply the comforts and lessons of his faith, to ask that God “bend” his “rebellious” will, while in the midst of the throes of desolation, he is at God’s mercy, a thread he continues in “My own heart”:


I cast for comfort I can no more get

By groping round my comfortless than blind

Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find

Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.


He is incapable of finding comfort of his own effort, as a blind man cannot see daylight no matter how bright it is; nor thirst be quenched, no matter how much water there is, if it is only a surface wetness. He describes an abundance of grace to be had, but somehow not released, or not received. As Ignatius instructs, grace is God’s to give, not ours to get or to keep. Acknowledging this, Hopkins advises his “self” to:


let be; call off thoughts awhile

Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile

‘S not wrung, see you; unforeseentimes rather – as skies

Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile.


God’s smile cannot be wrung from him; grace is God’s to give at times only “God knows when”, lest, in Ignatius’ words, our intellect be raised “into some pride or vainglory, attributing to us devotion or the other things of the spiritual consolation.” God-given comfort and joy is beyond our control, it happens in “unforeseentimes,” as when, in the midst of storm-darkened skies, a break in the clouds reveals both the beauty of the land, and the source of light by which it is illumined. Hopkins is acutely aware of his desolation, and of his inability to extricate himself from it apart from God’s grace.


In “No worst, there is none,” he achieves the insight that no matter how dark his desolation may be, it can always get worse. Hope, no matter how dim, can get dimmer. He cries out: “Comforter, where, where is your comforting? Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?” Yet in “Carrion Comfort,” he discerns the spirit of desolation, announcing his resistance to it, however feeble it becomes:


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.


This choice, in the midst of desolation, to “hope, wish day come, not choose not to be,” is in the end revealed to be his wrestling with God:


                                                                                    That night, that year

Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.


An excerpt from a letter Hopkins wrote to Bridges in April 1869 may give us further helpful context for understanding Hopkins’ wrestling. Upon hearing of the grief-stricken death of Bridges’ sister, he wrote of her, presumably aiming to comfort him, however naively, that “sufferings falling on such a person as your sister was are to be looked on as the marks of God’s particular love and this is truer the more exceptional they are.”

We can excuse Hopkins’ naivete, because of our own. Most of us have been, at one time or another, Job’s well-meaning friends, unaware as to how our claims to wisdom, to understanding the mind of God, amount to hubris, or at least to insensitivity in the presence of grief. It is for the sufferer to find his or her own meaning, to encounter God, in the midst of the whirlwind. As Hopkins encountered his own whirlwind of desolation, he found his own faith and hope strained towards their limits. Would he have been able to write the same letter of his own suffering, as he did of Bridges’ sister?


The revelation of “Carrion Comfort,” that his wrestling is with none other than the Almighty God, reveals, I think, that this intellectual position about suffering being about “God’s particular love” is difficult to reconcile with the emotional experience of the very nature of suffering. Within that chaos, those answers from without aren’t satisfying. “Thou art indeed just, Lord” shows him contending with God about this very question:


Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend

            With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must

Disappointment all I endeavor end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost

Defeat, thwart me?


He doesn’t say to himself, “this is God’s particular love for me, especially the more exceptional it is”; rather he asks for relief, since he has spent his entire


Life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes

Now leaved how thick! Laced they are again

With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes


Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,

Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.


Returning to “Carrion comfort,” we see in stanzas three and four that simple answers are not entirely adequate. Being bruised and fanned, he asks “Why?” Then stating simply: “That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” But he then rejects this simple statement with a “Nay.” It is not that clear or simple. He lacks definitive answers for, and the rewards of, his wrestling. He is still wrestling, and his earlier, romanticized notions of suffering are being purged.

We see a wrestling match also in his ideals about the offering of his life and his work to Christ. We know from letters that Hopkins feared both “public fame” and “private notoriety” (letter to Dixon, Oct. 31, 1879). And furthermore, his ideal that what he produced was for Christ, who, if he saw fit, would use Hopkins’ writing for his purposes and would do so “with a success which I (Hopkins) could never command.” Thus, he considered it against his own best interests if he were to take things into his own hands and force their publication (letter to Dixon, Dec. 1, 1881).

Yet we also know that, considering himself “time’s eunuch,” never begetting anything, he wanted to be heard, as was seen also in “To seem the stranger.” In October of 1886, he wrote to Bridges,


I would have you and Canon Dixon and all true poets remember that fame, the being known, though in itself one of the most dangerous things to man, is nevertheless the true and appointed air, element, and setting of genius and its works. What are works of art for? to educate, to be standards. Education is meant for the many, standards are for public use. To produce then is of little use unless what we produce is known, if known widely known, the wider the known the better, for it is by being known it works, it influences, it does its duty, it does good. We must then try to be known, aim at it, take means to it. And this without puffing in the process or pride in the success.


And in his retreat notes from the last months of his life, he records the depth of his sense of failure, after years of toil, to be known, productive, influential:


What is my wretched life? Five wasted years almost have passed in Ireland. I am ashamed of the little I have done, of my waste of time, although my helplessness and weakness is such that I could scarcely do otherwise. And yet the Wise Man warns us against excusing ourselves in that fashion. I cannot then be excused; but what is life without aim, without spur, without help? All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death: yet if I died now I should die imperfect, no master of myself, and that is the worst failure of all. O my God, look down on me…

…how then can it be pretended that there is for those who feel this anything worth calling happiness in this world? There is a happiness, hope, the anticipation of happiness hereafter: it is better than happiness, but it is not happiness now. It is as if one were dazzled by a spark or star in the dark, seeing it but not seeing by it: we want a light shed on our way and a happiness spread over our life.


In desolation, he remains intimately related to God, dependent upon him, the only one who can relieve his desolation with sparks of hope, or send his dry “roots rain.”


Watching the Door

Aware of the fact that, as an extraordinarily gifted poet, he was essentially unknown in his lifetime, and that his death at a relatively young age occurred after several years of spiritual and emotional agony, it is tempting to want to write our own epilogue to his story, to make meaning of his suffering, mostly for our own sake.  Missing details of the last days of his life, we ourselves want to fill in the gaps, imagining that God somehow fully comforted him, assuring us that, for all of his struggle and service, just as in the case of Job, Hopkins’ “fortune” (i.e. his consolation) was restored two-fold in the end. We do this because we want this assurance for ourselves, to know that we will be rewarded in this life for our labor, our faithfulness and perseverance, and that we will die with a sense of completeness, accomplishment, and integrity, in our life. If we do this for Hopkins, making meaning for ourselves out of his suffering, without justification, we play the same role as Job’s friends, minimizing his suffering with our rationalizations.

In the last letter he sent to his mother, written while ill with typhoid fever, a month before he died, he wrote: “at many such a time I have been in a sort of extremity of mind, now I am the placidest soul in the world. And you will see, when I come round, I shall be the better for this” (letter dated May 5, 1889). It is plausible that this letter, from an eldest son, suffering from a serious disease, to his mother, may be read as a dutiful and loving comfort to her, while the man himself may not have actually felt as placid as he claimed for her sake. Indeed the letter opens with Gerard expressing his grief that she “should be in such anxiety about” his illness, followed by his assuring her that he is in the capable hands of the doctor and nurses.

We may hope he sincerely meant those words, but we also know that he did not know he was dying; he expected recovery and retained hope that his spirit would be somehow refreshed. Perhaps it was, but we have no assurance of this. In any case, insofar as he contrasts his present state (“the placidest soul in the world”) with his past “extremity of mind,” assuring his mother of his well-being, we can accept the comparison, hyperbolic though it may be, as evidence of some relief. His physical health, however, continued to decline, leading to his death the following month.

Roughly 30 years after Hopkins’ death, Robert Bridges published his poetry, which was met with acclaim, and today not only is his poetry read and appreciated as some of the finest of the Victorian era, but commentaries and biographies on Hopkins continue to be produced and read. He whose poetry was essentially unknown in his lifetime, and who trusted that, if his poems were useful to God, would be made known by God, is today studied in English literature courses and in seminaries. And ironically, the most celebrated of his poems are those written towards the end of his life, when he was in such profound desolation, considering himself to be creatively sterile and useless.

Can we use Hopkins’ posthumous success and notoriety to release the tension we feel between such sacrifice and devotion and such relentless and apparently meaningless suffering? I think we can. Whether intended or not, Hopkins left us a clue, giving us, I believe, permission to do so.

In “In honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez,” Hopkins celebrates the humility, long-suffering, perseverance, and faithfulness of a certain Alfonso, who for forty years lived as the hall porter for the Jesuit College of Palma on the Island of Majorca. After his death, the discovery of his journals revealed the intense spiritual struggles and temptations with which he fought during all those years, quietly, privately, without recognition or honor, and was later canonized. Hopkins celebrates this man, and his valor, of which only the man himself and Christ were aware. Hopkins understood Alphonsus’ posthumous notoriety and ecclesiastical honor as evidence of his spiritual heroism. I believe this gives us license to view Hopkins’ own private suffering and posthumous success (which in many ways reminds us of that of St. Alfonsus) in the same way, without taking advantage of Hopkins’ suffering for our personal ends. The fact that this poem was written for the newly canonized saint’s feast day is implicit evidence of Hopkins’ belief that, unlike Job, whose reward was (necessarily) received in this life, Alphonsus’ reward, whose “career” was crowded “with conquest while there went those years and years by of world without event that in Majorca Alfonso watched the door,” was necessarily received in the next.

Just as in “The Windhover,” in which “blue-bleak embers,” which appear spent, dull, and lifeless, when they fall upon the grate, “gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion,” revealing the beauty and power within, Alphonsus spent what seemed like a dull, menial life watching the door, and only after his death was the intensity of his private spiritual life revealed. The same God who:


…hews out mountain, continent,

Earth, all, at last; who, with fine increment

Trickling, veins violets and tall trees makes more

Could crowd career with conquest…


This “conquest,” at least in part, is that of Ignatius’ exhortation, that “one who is in desolation should reflect that with the sufficient grace already available he or she can do much to resist all hostile forces, by drawing strength from our Creator and Lord,” an achievement to which Hopkins aspired, if not achieved. The conquest, the mastering, the forging of the will, likened here to the hewing out of mountains and continents and the veining of violets, is God’s work, often calamitous, cataclysmic, yet perhaps imperceptibly slow and delicate, taking shape in us as we take strength in our Lord whose grace is sufficient for us to resist all enemies, tempests, and temptations.


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