The third Hopkins’ poem I’ve chosen to guide us on our journey from despair to delight is called Carrion Comfort.
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry . I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Now there’s a fair bit of difficult stuff in this poem, which we’ll not worry about too much. For example how Hopkins likes to use adjectives like ‘rude’ as verbs; or phrases like ‘I kissed the rod’ which means taking holy orders, becoming a priest.
Let’s focus on the first four lines, which are all about his thoughts of suicide. Hopkins is not just accepting his despair. Now has started to wrestle with it. He is not going to die. He is not going to let anyone or anything feast on his rotting remains. He is not giving up – even though he knows how hard it is to keep going - as we can see from his double negative ‘not choose not to be’. He can. He can stay alive. He can hope.
Unlike Hamlet wondering whether ‘to be or not to be’, or Keats who was ‘half I love with easeful death’, Hopkins is determined to survive. Like the conatus – desire - of my favourite philosopher Spinoza, these lines are all about his dogged, bloody-minded resolve to keep going, come what may. And we can draw immense strength from that.
There’s a lot more wrestling in the rest of the poem, but it’s no longer with himself. Now it’s a conflict between Hopkins and his God. We can take this more generally. Since we have decided we are going to stick around, we can decide there is no point in just meekly accepting our fate. We can decide to stand up and be counted. We can decide to do battle with the conditions that have been grinding us down.
But what’s the point?
Maybe it’s to strip away the ‘chaff’, the rubbish that surrounds us, so that our ‘grain’, our inner being, lies ‘sheer and clear’. Maybe it’s to find out that we are strong, strong enough to grapple with the toughest of them all, and not be defeated.
And we have a clue in the last line that the worst is over, as ‘of now done darkness’ shifts these experiences from present to past tense.