By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’ is the first line of a poem that is variously titled ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’ or, in Latin, ‘Justus quidem tu es, Domine’. It was written in March 1889, only a few months before Hopkins’s untimely death.
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.
Thou art 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 endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd 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.
The Latin which precedes the sonnet is taken from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible completed by St Jerome in around AD 400. Specifically, the line comes from Psalm 119, verse 137: ‘Righteous art thou, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments’ (King James Version).
‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’: those opening words immediately place this sonnet as one of Hopkins’s most directly religious (though his devotion to God can be seen in most of his poetry). We might paraphrase the meaning of the poem as follows: ‘It’s true you are just and righteous, Lord, as I see when I grapple with my faith in you; but by the same token, what I ask is also just. Namely: why do sinners get away with it? And why must everything I try to achieve end in disappointment?
‘If you were my enemy, it’s hard to imagine how you could scupper my intentions more effectively than you do now, as my friend. The drunkards and lust-fuelled people who spend their idle time in sin succeed far more than I do, who spend my hours in devotion to you. Look at the natural world, where the banks of rivers, and the bushes, are thick with leaves and wild parsley, and the wind shakes them.
‘Birds build their nests, but I don’t build anything; no, all I do is labour and work hard, a slave to time, and I haven’t produced a single thing that lives and grows. O Lord, send rain to water my roots and give the things I do life and growth.’
It would be easy to interpret the imagery concerning growth at the end of the sonnet as an example of Hopkins casting himself as the ‘bride of Christ’, and even as a sort of mother figure wishing to bring forth life through God.
After all, birds build their nests for their young, and Hopkins (by contrast) is ‘Time’s eunuch’, implying not just slavery (others are ‘thralls of lust’, but Hopkins’s indenture is to Time) but impotence and lack of procreative ability.
Hopkins cannot ‘breed one work that wakes’. (Note also, while we’re on the subject of that bird nesting reference, the beautifully Hopkinsian stutter in ‘Birds build – but not I build’: the effect would be lessened considerably if Hopkins had written ‘Birds build – but I do not’ or ‘Birds build – but I don’t build’.)
‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’ was the last great poem Hopkins wrote. Within a few months, he would be dead of typhus, aged just 44. But the poem is a prime example of why his poetry, from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ through to this last short masterpiece, is worth reading, analysing, and revisiting.