Literature

A Short Analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Felix Randal’

There aren’t perhaps many canonical poems written about Liverpool blacksmiths, but there is ‘Felix Randal’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), which is one of the poet’s most famous poems and, like all of Hopkins’s work, deserves closer analysis. Before we offer some notes towards a commentary on this wonderful poem, here’s the text of ‘Felix Randal’, a poem written in 1880 but not published until 1918.

Felix Randal

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

‘Felix Randal’ was written about a real man, a farrier (i.e. one who makes shoes for horses) in Liverpool named Felix Spencer. Spencer died of tuberculosis and Hopkins penned this sonnet (of which more below) about the man in 1880, while Hopkins was living in Bedford Leigh, not far from the city.

‘Felix Randal’: summary

Let’s go through the poem section-by-section and see what’s going on:

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome

Hopkins begins the poem in a colloquial, even offhand way: ‘Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then?’ It’s as if the poet is responding to the news from someone who has just told him about it in the street. Immediately his thoughts turn to his ‘duty’ (as a parish priest: Hopkins was a Jesuit and this part of the north-west of England was his parish at the time), tending to the sick and dying and performing the last rites.

He tells us that he has watched the physical decline of Felix Randal, who was not just a man but a ‘mould of man’, as if he were the archetypal vision of what a man should look like (‘big-boned and hardy-handsome’: Hopkins uses his trademark hyphenated phrases, akin to the Anglo-Saxon kennings he so admired, to summon the farrier’s big, hale, and rugged appearance).

Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

The once-strong Felix pined away in his illness, dwindled in strength, until his reason and sanity had gone and he was reduced to rambling incoherently, and his various ailments (‘Fatal four disorders’) fought within him for prominence, destroying him. (Note the unusual word-order: not ‘four fatal disorders’ but ‘fatal four disorders’, because, grammar be damned, the fact that they are fatal is more important to poor Felix than how many different diseases wrack his body.)

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all;

Hopkins begins the next section with a simple three-word sentence: ‘Sickness broke him.’ Since the first four lines of the poem had essentially comprised one long sentence (the lack of a capital ‘M’ in ‘my duty all ended’ indicates this was a continuation of the same sentence rather than the start of a new one), the move from this to such a brief sentence in the fifth line brings us up short, much as Felix’s sickness had laid him low and ended his life.

There is perhaps the glimmer of a pun in the next word, ‘Impatient’: laid up and unwell, Felix was a ‘patient’ tended by doctors and priests (such as Hopkins), but he was impatient with the whole business of being unwell. He ‘cursed at first’ because he was not resigned to his fate, but the anointing that a priestly benediction could bring reconciled him to his own mortality.

… though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

Here, ‘our sweet reprieve and ransom’ refers to the religious reprieve (forgiveness for one’s sins) and ransom (what is expected in exchange for forgiveness). Hopkins hopes that God will forgive Felix Randal for whatever sins he has committed (or any road he ‘offended’, any path he took which he shouldn’t have) and will welcome him into heaven.

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.

Now we come to the volta or ‘turn’ in the poem. ‘Felix Randal’ is a sonnet (as will be explored in more detail in the analysis below), and specifically a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, and these usually have a volta – a point in the sonnet where the argument of the poem changes direction or focus – at the beginning of the ninth line. So it is here. Now Hopkins is thinking about how coming face-to-face with people who are at death’s door leads us to have more sympathy for their plight, and makes them appreciate us being near them to provide comfort in their hour of need.

My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

Hopkins’s words brought comfort to Felix Randal, and his gentle touch wiped away the dying man’s tears; but similarly, the farrier’s tears touched the poet’s heart and made him sympathise for the dying man. It is as if Hopkins has become a ‘father’ in a more than religious sense: Felix Randal, that large, hearty man, has become a ‘child’ again, not just a child in the eyes of the Lord (and of his priests, such as Hopkins) but in his helplessness. How often is old age described as a ‘second childhood’? At least since Shakespeare called it ‘second childishness’ in his ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech.

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Hopkins ends the poem by thinking back to when Felix Randal was in his prime, and had little ‘forethought’ of his death years later. Standing at the forge, and mighty among his fellows, Randal fashioned the ‘bright and battering sandal’ or shoe for a great drayhorse.

‘Felix Randal’: analysis

As with Hopkins’s poetry as a whole, ‘Felix Randal’ sees the poet using repeated vowels and consonants to lyrical effect: here, the ‘effect’ is to recover the energy of the farrier working in his forge, battering and beating the metal to create shoes for horses amidst the fire and heat of the smithy.

This is perhaps most clearly seen in the closing three lines of the poem:

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

How sudden yet subtle the change of direction of ‘far’ into the ‘fore’ of ‘forethought’, as though it happened without any forethought and yet was, at the same time, inevitable all the time; how natural the building of that ‘fore’ into ‘forge’; and how masterfully does ‘great grey drayhorse’ accumulate long ‘a’ sounds before reaching the natural culmination in that final word, rhyming as it does with Randal’s (fictional) last name, itself both a wonderful surprise (how many great poems are there with sandals in them?) and yet preordained, thanks to the poem’s rhyme scheme, which withholds the rhyme for ‘Randal’ until the very last possible moment. (And look how thoroughly Randal’s name is scattered across the poem through various syllables and rhymes: ‘Felix Randal the farrier’; ‘Being anointed and all’; ‘ransom’; ‘Felix, poor Felix Randal’; ‘random’; ‘sandal’.)

‘Felix Randal’ is a sonnet: specifically, a Petrarchan sonnet comprising an octave (eight-line section) and a sestet (six-line section). We delve into the history and form of the sonnet in more detail here. The main thing to highlight here is that, whereas most sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, Hopkins’s lines are longer than this, thanks to his use of sprung rhythm. But here, once again, the bounciness and jauntiness of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm perfectly suggests the activity of the forge that characterised Felix Randal’s working life.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Best Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems Everyone Should Read – Interesting Literature

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  3. Peter GARDNER

    This has been one of my favourite poems for many years. T was a Catholic schoolboy when I first read it and my liking for it easily survived my transition to a cynical old atheist. I always thought that “fatal four disorders” referred to the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, water) that were “fleshed” within the farrier’s body.

  4. I love this one too. In some analysis I’ve read it is argued that the Ferrier is a metaphor for the priest who prepares the soul for the journey into death, and so Hopkins is reflecting on his own vocation here, and happily.

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