A summary of one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s most powerful sonnets
This is one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s so-called ‘Terrible Sonnets’, composed in the 1880s while he was living in Ireland and plunged in depression. The poem beautifully captures Hopkins’s trademark ‘eloquent inarticulacy’ and is one of the most powerful descriptions of a sleepless night in all of English poetry. Here is the poem, followed by an analysis.
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.
In the first quatrain, ‘delay’ is not merely the rhyme for ‘day’: it is an elongation of it, a delaying act, reminding the speaker of the poem – and us, the reader – that day remains far off. One should go to sleep at night and wake only in the morning, when day has arrived; but because the speaker wakes up and finds he cannot get back to sleep, he is doomed to lie awake, in the ‘black hours’ (black because it is literally night, but also because of the speaker’s depression).
But this sleepless night is no isolated incident: ‘when I say / Hours I mean years, mean life.’ Hopkins’s depression is related to his religious vocation (he was a Jesuit priest) and he feels as if his prayers have been going unanswered, like ‘dead letters’ which are returned to sender, unopened. As so often with Hopkins, the spiritual and psychological are experienced as a vivid visceral force that is physical as well as metaphysical: his depression and doubt weigh upon him like heartburn or indigestion (‘heartburn’ picking up on the poet’s more abstract address to his ‘heart’ in the third line of the poem, but also leading into the ‘blood’ mentioned a couple of lines later).
Hopkins has not helped himself, as his baking metaphor makes clear: ‘Selfyeast a dull dough sours.’ You reap what you sow. But things must be even worse for those who are ‘lost’ to Christianity (something of a preoccupation with Hopkins: see his poem about the composer Henry Purcell, whom he fears may be in hell because he was not a Catholic): they are ‘sweating selves’ like him but ‘worse’, not least because of the heat and torment of hell that awaits them. (Again here, the word ‘heartburn’ offers a suggestion of this, with its burning imagery – and, of course, dough is transformed into bread through being fired in the heat of the oven.)
Even if we don’t subscribe to Hopkins’s religious beliefs, ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’ is a heartfelt poem about lying awake at night worrying (something the Anglo-Saxons, whom Hopkins admired, had a special word for), about self-analysis and soul-searching. Its vivid imagery and powerful use of language make it a memorable sonnet, deeply personal and yet of universal appeal. Within four years of writing it, Hopkins was dead; the poem would not be published, like so much of Hopkins’s poetry, for another thirty years.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.