We’ve now reached stage 5 of our travels with Gerard Manley Hopkins – and here we find his sonnet 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.
This poem is about the life and the death of a Liverpool blacksmith, whose real name was Felix Spencer. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 31 - the average life expectancy in Liverpool at that time.
It may seems strange that I’m suggesting a poem about death and dying can help us on our journey from despair to delight, but I really think it can.
A few words and phrases may need explaining first. In line 4, ‘fatal four disorders’ probably refers to the Catholic notion that there are four elements of original sin. In line 13, ‘random’ means built of rough stone. In line 14 ‘fettle’ means ‘make ready’, and ‘sandal’ is a classical term for an early form of horseshoe.
I find a very strong affinity with Hopkins throughout this poem. He wrote it just a few minutes’ walk from my University office, where I am sitting right now. So it feels particularly real and tangible to me.
For me it resonates strongly with the real world relationships I enjoy as a family doctor today. His vivid description of Felix crumbling in the face of disease. His application of the best evidence-based care (though for Hopkins his evidence comes from Catholic doctrine, not NICE Guidelines). His bearing witness to Felix the man, ‘powerful amidst peers’ in his ‘more boisterous years’.
But above all, in the mutual benefits that derive from his care of Felix as his death approaches. I find the heart of this sonnet is in lines 8 to 10: ‘This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears’. Sight, words, touch and tears - all shared, in a beautiful reciprocity.
This is an opportunity for all of us.
Connecting and giving are two of the Five Ways to Wellbeing. We can recognize – and accept as entirely reasonable and legitimate - that we ourselves receive comfort, a greater sense of wellbeing, as we provide comfort to others. We feel, we become, appreciated - and loved.