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A Short Analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Carrion Comfort’

A commentary on one of Hopkins’s ‘Terrible Sonnets’

The mid-1880s was not a good time for Gerard Manley Hopkins. Lonely in Ireland, the poet fell into a black pit of depression, out of which came the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ which represent, after his flurry of creativity in 1876-77, the most productive time of his poetic career. ‘Carrion Comfort’ is perhaps the most famous of these sonnets. Before we proceed to a commentary on the poem, here’s a reminder of it.

Carrion Comfort

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Elsewhere, in our analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we’ve found that the best way to summarise the meaning of a poem, especially the argument of a sonnet, is to paraphrase it. Of course, we lose something through paraphrasing a Hopkins poem – the wonderfully idiosyncratic use of language – but then it’s this idiosyncrasy which sometimes makes Hopkins’s meaning difficult to understand. So, to paraphrase ‘Carrion Comfort’: ‘No, I will give in to despair, I will not let it unravel the last bits of me that remain intact, weak though these remaining parts of me are. I will not say “I can’t do this any more”. I can do something, even if it’s something as small as wishing for the morning to come or deciding not to end my life. But why, God, would you rock my world with your powerful right hand, like a lion swiping at something with its mighty paw? And then look down at my bruised body and assault me with storms, while I lie there and long to flee?’

In the sestet, Hopkins ponders the question: ‘Why would God want me to suffer so much? I am being blown about the place by these stormy winds so that the “chaff” or bad stuff might be blown away, and the wheat or “grain” that constitute my good parts be left unblemished. Since I “kissed the rod” representing God’s rule, or rather since I kissed the hand that holds the rod, I have suffered hardship, true; but my heart has known true joy too. So if all this hardship was ultimately for my own good, should I cheer God who inflicted it on me? Should I cheer myself for having survived the struggle? Or cheer both God and myself for that dark night of the soul (which lasted a year) when I lay battling God?’

Paraphrase destroys the texture and the layers of Hopkins’s language, of course – but as we say, there is no option really when faced with some of the images and phrases which Hopkins crams into his fourteen-line poem. Take that title, ‘Carrion Comfort’ – which isn’t a title Hopkins himself gave to the poem, although in the absence of any official title it has been used. Hopkins describes despair as ‘carrion comfort’ to suggest that despair is the rotten and corrupt side of comfort, as though ‘comfort’ and ‘despair’ are more than opposites: once comfort decays and rots away, it turns to despair. Thomas Hardy coined the word ‘unhope’ as the flipside of ‘hope’ for a similar reason: ‘unhope’ reminds us of the hope-that-should-be, in a way that plain ‘despair’ cannot.

In another of Hopkins’s ‘Terrible Sonnets’, ‘No worst, there is none’, the ghost of a passage from King Lear seems to lurk behind Hopkins’s lines about despair and depression. In ‘Carrion Comfort’, another Shakespearean ghost, the ghost of Hamlet, can be heard:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

‘Not’ comes at us three times in that opening line, reminding us that ‘not’ here refers specifically to the threat mentioned explicitly in that fourth line: ‘not to be’, in other words, to end it all, to commit suicide, to take one’s life. This is what giving in to the ‘carrion comfort’ of ‘Despair’ (note the capital, which personifies the affliction) ultimately means: relinquishing one’s life. Hamlet, of course, wondered whether ‘to be, or not to be’, words which are rejected in Hopkins’s ‘not choose not to be’.

If you found this analysis of Hopkins’s ‘Carrion Comfort’ interesting, you can discover more about his life with our curious facts about him, and find more of his poems discussed here.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on December 7, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. The explanation is extremely interesting and easy to understand, especially for somebody like me who is not regularly exposed to such poetry. It is indeed a job well done!

    I would like to ask a question, or rather, place a request for further explanation. In reference to the paragraph comparing the work of Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy, I was able to grasp a little how ‘Despair’ has been mentioned in relation to comfort, but couldn’t really understand how the meaning of the word ‘Unhope’ as mentioned here.

    It would be really nice if you provided a simple explanation of the same, as it would help me understand and appreciate the article even better.
    Thanks!

    • Thank you! That’s very kind. On the ‘unhope’ point: Hardy’s coinage of this word taunts us with the prospect of hope, even while it negates any such prospect (un-hope). The word ‘despair’ cannot convey this thwarting-of-hope in quite the same way. It’s the same with Hopkins’s ‘carrion comfort’: not just despair, but ‘comfort gone bad’. Hardy’s unhope is ‘hope gone bad’.

      • Thank you the explanation! Its a bit clearer now, and I guess if I put a little more thinking into it then I will come to a conclusion of my understanding of the terms.

  2. I’m thinking the French “désespoir” is somehow related to “unhope.”

  3. Hopkins is life enhancing even in despair.

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