The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is recognized by critics as some of the most influential and powerful religious poetry in all of history. At the young age of fifteen he won the Highgate School Poetry prize and two years later received the Governor’s Gold Medal for Latin Verse (website). However, despite this early recognition, he published very few poems over the course of his life, with the majority of his poetry being published posthumously. This can lead one to infer that his poetry was never written for an audience of any sort, short of himself and his God.
Therefore his poems can provide very meaningful insight into the journey through faith on which he embarked over the course of his life. Consequently, as one of Hopkins’ final sonnets before his death, the poem [“Thou Art Indeed Just… “] can be seen as a well-framed window into his soul; the soul of a man who has struggled to follow the path of God throughout his lifetime. Through an in-depth analysis of the imagery and poetic devices at work within this poem, perhaps a deeper understanding of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, can be attained.
Understanding the sonnet [“Thou Art Indeed Just… ] necessitates an understanding of some of the prevailing themes at work both in Hopkins’ poetry and in his life. Hopkins was perpetually plagued, as well as blessed, by the double nature of his faith, “a source of anguish”, which “he never wavered in… [yet]… never felt worthy of… ” (Ramazani 64). This dual nature of faith makes itself evident in the poem through the attitudes taken by Hopkins. The opening lines, “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend/with thee” (Hopkins 82) imparts to the reader a sense of acceptance of the fair nature of the Lord, despite any contentions Hopkins may have.
The rhythmic, hard consonant sounds of the “t” and “d” in this passage (underlined) suggest a harmony or perhaps a grand design about which humankind is not fully aware. In Hopkins’ terminology, the structure of the first two lines reflects the Lord’s power as the “instress” of all “inscapes”, his binding power of love. However, the third and fourth lines belie this acceptance of greater purpose with questions; seemingly “just” questions.
Yet Hopkins already knows the answer to these questions, for ,on the surface, this poem might appear to be a parallel of Jesus on the cross asking why God has forsaken him, but in truth, this is a poem of lament for humanity. From the fifth line on, Hopkins explores his doubts more fully. In the beginning of the second quatrain he again questions his God on a more personal level. In the seventh line, when he discusses “the sots and thralls of lust” (line 7), one can almost feel the serpent testing him; the same consonance of “s” sounds here is at work in the third line as well: “sinners’ ways prosper” (line 3).
His feelings of inconsequentiality reveal themselves as he bemoans his inability to succeed while reflecting on the ease with which “sinners’ ways” succeed. He knows that these thoughts should not bother him, yet he expresses what he is truly feeling inside: the inner struggle which his faith has created in him. The first tercet presents the reader with a spiritual experience, not quite an epiphany, but more of a recollection or return to equilibrium. In lines nine and ten, Hopkins is so moved by his experience that his reflections are exclaimed.
Nature can be looked at in this light in quite a few of Hopkins’ poems, most notably “God’s Grandeur”, where one finds characters who “cut themselves off from the spiritual renewal inherent in nature” (Meyer 729). Transcendence through nature is a common experience for Hopkins in his poetry as well as in his life (website). It seems that this stanza has prepared him for a recognition of something at the end of the poem. In spite of this experience, in lines twelve and thirteen, he breaks from this “natural” awakening and bemoans his inability to create for one final time.
He refers to himself as “Time’s eunuch… [unable to]… breed one work that wakes” (line 13). A eunuch is defined as “a castrated man or boy fr. Gk fr. eun?? , bed +echein, to keep” (Websters 325). Historically, eunuchs have been used as servants to an emperor or ruler, and many had risen high up in courts. This is a good image of what Hopkins sees himself as. The inability to create, or, if taken literally, procreate, is the greatest pain of all for Hopkins, as he sees creation as the Lord’s ultimate gift to humanity.
His anger, lament, and frustration are felt in the alliteration in “one work that wakes” (line 13) and the similar use of alliteration when he questions God, “How wouldst thou worse, I wonder” (line 6). The sense of loss expressed here can be interpreted as a lack of inspiration or as an intellectual desire, a thirst for knowledge. Though Hopkins seemingly doubts the ways of his Lord, it is in the final line of the poem, “send my roots rain” (line 14), that the reader realizes that he never truly doubted the Lord’s plans, simply that he desires understanding.
The ascetic lifestyle he has chosen is what he believes his faith demands of him, and therefore he knows that a life of suffering and rejecting worldly goods is truly virtuous. However, the wonder he expresses over sinners prospering is his own admission that he is still human and is still subject to human desires, despite his righteous path. He knows this, but does not accept it when he asks the question in line 3. It is only during the first tercet, after a reflection on the inscape of natural things as embodiments of the Lord’s love, that Hopkins comes to this realization of human weakness.
Even the rhyme scheme suggests that the poem is leading up to a awakening as the first two quatrains mirror each other (abba abba), yet the final two tercets are the inverse of one another (cdc dcd) suggesting that something occurs in the final tercet which has not occurred anywhere else in the poem. In response to this realization, Hopkins asks the “lord of life, send my roots rain” (line 14). Hopkins desires to be closer to God than he is able to be in human form; thus, his faith renewed, he refers to himself in natural terms so as to ask for transcendence into nature.
Ending the sonnet with these alliterative pairings also conveys to the reader the deep longing for peace and freedom from doubt which Hopkins desires. In conclusion, it becomes clear that Hopkins’ sonnet, “Thou Art Indeed Just… ” contains much poignant diction and many poetic devices. The overall effect of these devices gives the reader a precious opportunity to see deeply into the mindset or soul of the poet. This gives excellent reason for interpretation and analysis of these, his last “terrible sonnets”, as they can be very rewarding and emotionally compelling.
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