It's time to take the first step on our journey from despair to delight, taken in the company of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We’re going to jump straight in with what, for me, is Hopkins’ most desolate sonnet.
Here it is: take a deep breath, and read:
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder ring.
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 has 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.
Yes, it’s a tough one, isn’t it? It’s probably the most troubled and troubling poem I have ever read. Grief upon grief. Fury after fury. An endless falling into nothingness. Nobody there to offer any comfort or relief. The only possibilities of escape are sleep or death.
So how could this dread-full poem ever be helpful to someone in the depths of despair?
Well, I think it offer us comfort in three ways.
First, it makes a connection for us. I first read this poem when I was 18, soon after a big relationship break-up and living in a place and with people I didn’t know. I felt totally alone, and utterly miserable. And I realised: this guy understands what I’m going through, he’s been there himself, he’s talking my language. So there was a link for me with Hopkins, a sense of shared experience. And I didn’t feel quite so alone.
Other people I know have felt the same. ‘It’s like finding a friend,’ someone told me recently;’ I felt like he was sitting next to me, reading to me. It brings a closeness.’
Second, reading a poem like this can help us accept that it’s OK, it’s legitimate to feel so distressed - something we may often doubt or feel guilty about. ‘It’s allowed, you’re entitled to feel that depth.’
And third, there is something powerful and impressive about Hopkins’ absolute, raw honesty here - his ability to give deep expression to the reality of his experiences, however terrifying that reality may be. There is no pretending, no denying, no hiding.
You may know that mindfulness meditation is helpful for people who have recurring experiences of depression. And this is precisely where mindfulness begins – resting in the present moment, however difficult that moment happens to be. Staying with the reality of our situation. Without judgment or evaluation. Without avoiding the problems we face, or trying to solve them. Just being there.
This is the first stage of the journey. If Hopkins has the courage to face his misery head on, then so can we.