A commentary on one of Hopkins’s ‘Terrible Sonnets’
‘No Worst, There Is None’ is one of a group of sonnets the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) wrote when he was suffering from depression in the 1880s, while living in Ireland. These are known as the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ because of the terrible fits of misery and despair which inspired them, and which they so brilliantly capture. Before we proceed to offer a few words of analysis of ‘No Worst, There Is None’, here’s a reminder of the poem.
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
It doesn’t get much bleaker than this. When we are in the grip of despair, such helpless and deep depression outstrips even the heartbreak and grief of losing a loved one. To paraphrase the poem: ‘There is no point at which this depression stops and I can say “this is the worst point – it won’t get any worse than this.” Thrown past the point of grief, more sharp twitches of pain, seemingly having learned how to inflict pain on me by watching what previous waves of pain did to me, will twist my body and soul more wildly yet. Comforter, why do you not comfort me? Virgin Mary, why do you not lessen this pain?’
The second quatrain continues this cry of woe: ‘My cries of pain heave like the waves of the sea, sounding like the cries not of one man but of whole herds of cattle stretched out in a line – and yet these cries are all focused on the “chief woe” that is “world-sorrow”, the general feeling of sadness we feel at existing in a world so full of pain and suffering. It’s like being on an anvil and being hammered on continually, causing me to wince and cry out with the pain – although the pain does subside eventually, if only for a while. It’s as if Fury had commanded the pain to attack quickly without “lingering”.’
In the sonnet’s sestet Hopkins considers the mind of the depressed person: ‘It’s as if the mind has vast mountains, off the edge of which we can tumble into black pits of depression – mountains so mighty that no man ever fell from them and lived to tell the tale. People who have never known such dark depression hold this “cheap”, and don’t realise how bad it is, as they’ve never experienced it. And in the small time we are alive for, that small “durance”, we cannot deal with such steep cliffs of depression and learn how to overcome them. All the wretched sufferer can do is creep under whatever comfort he can find and cling to it, like a man sheltering under something during a storm; and the comfort on offer is the knowledge that life ends in death, and each day dies when we go to sleep.’
A fine poem this, precisely because it refuses to look away from the terrible pits of depression which Hopkins knew so well. Its vision of despair may strike some readers as too bleak because it isn’t offset by any real sense of comfort: the only comfort Hopkins can offer is the old knowledge that ‘life’s a bitch and then you die’ or the Housmanesque philosophy that life may be terrible, but at least it’ll soon be over.
The language, as in all of Hopkins’s greatest poems, is difficult to unpick but, when it is closely analysed, reveals a dense compactness not found in many other Victorian poets. Like many great poets, his language wrong-foots us at times, as in that opening statement. ‘No worst, there is none.’ This is often paraphrased as ‘there’s nothing worse than this feeling of depression’, but Hopkins did not write ‘worse’ but the superlative, ‘worst’: not just ‘there is nothing worse than this’ but ‘there is no worst to this’, no end-point where such depression seems to end. This paves the way for that cliff-imagery in the poem’s sestet (this sonnet follows the Petrarchan rhyme scheme and form), which call to mind a man tumbling from a cliff-top and far into the depths below, with the horrible twist that he never seems to reach the bottom of the pit with a thud – he just keeps on plummeting. Note also how the word ‘lingering’ itself lingers thanks to being stretched out over two lines: was enjambment ever put to more literal and effective use in a poem?
The ghost of a Shakespeare play, King Lear, may lurk behind ‘No Worst, There Is None’, and specifically Edgar’s words: ‘And worse I may be yet: the worst is not / So long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ There is no ‘worst’, Hopkins’s poem responds, confirming Edgar’s worst fears.
If you found this analysis of ‘No Worse, There Is None’ interesting, you may also enjoy our discussion of Hopkins’s ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’.