Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet I encountered on my parents’ shelves as a child. A small paperback of his poems in a Penguin edition, perhaps from the 1960s, was one of the poetry books met early in life. Unlike many of the poems, which now I remember reading with my father, this book belonged to my mother, and something of her spirit has always made Hopkins’ poetry something I must understand.
As a child, I absorbed perhaps the sounds, the strange music, which I now know echoes Anglo-Saxon rhymes and alliteration within the line, the invented words, and the idea that he was a nature poet. To think of Hopkins as a religious poet was then beyond my ken.
Hopkins sat unloved at the back of my mind for a few decades, and then in the midst of a deep depression last year I discovered a podcast about the terrible sonnets. For several days I wandered with “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day” and “No worst there is none” singing in my head. And this was a transformational experience that took me beyond me depression and through the flames to some kind of renewal.
Over the last few days, inspired by Bloom’s exhortations to memorise poems by heart, I have learned by heart the terrible sonnet, “No worst there is none” –
No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled by forepangs, wilder wring.
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, world-sorrow – on an age-old anvil wince and sing
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-
-ering: Let me be fell; perforce 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 a whirlwhind; all
Life death does end, and each day dies with sleep.
I read in a commentary that Hopkins here described his sin of acedie, and perhaps even sought to exorcise this demon in this sonnet. But, for me, he has given a name – mountains – to the impassable obstacles of the melancholic mind.
I read today that a later poem That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection is a reply to his call out to the uncomforting comforter. “Enough! the Resurrection, /A heart’s clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.” And so, for me who knows no religion, but still have passed through some flames to be reborn, I hope, and join an infinite conversation, can find still some comfort in the conclusion to Hopkins’ redemptive poem:
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.