Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Stage 1: Despair

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.

1 comment:

  1. ‘Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
    Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?’

    Very powerful. Personally my two favourite lines. Isn’t ‘ favourite’ a seemingly odd choice of words in fastening on to a despairing segment of poetry. Though I personally feel as Chris succinctly highlights, that ‘ it’s ok, it’s legitimate to feel distressed’. Perhaps the ‘ favourite ‘ lines are the ones that, however unstable they appear, cloak an absolute safety in the human condition.

    ‘The only possibilities of escape are Sleep or death’ though powerfully sleep ends only to deliver back into day and then renew its cycle of torment again.
    There is no escape here even- comfort taken away.
    Yet this to me represents almost symbolically the very point of acceptance & thus hope- ‘ just being there’.
    We are there
    We left there
    And we may be there again.
    It is part of life and it’s ok.
    Fantastic and provocative choice of poems!