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Hopkins and the dark night

Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from dark nights, too, and wrote at least four poems while he was in the midst of them; theyre often called "the Terrible Sonnets." This is one of them, written, it seems, he was starting to come out of the dark.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let

Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,

Charitable; not live this tormented mind

With this tormenting mind tormenting yet.

I cast for comfort I can no more get

By groping around my comfortless, than blind

Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find

Thirsts all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise

You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile

Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile

s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times ratheras skies

Betweenpie mountainslights a lovely mile.

By the way, in the last line, "betweenpie" is a word that Hopkins made up. He seems to have taken the word "pied," meaning "of various colors," taken it to be the passive participle of a (non-existent) verb, namely "pie," so that the whole phrase means, as one commentator puts it: "as the sky seen between dark mountains is brightly dappled."

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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Here is an interesting interview with another Catholic poet, Fanny Howe:Eve Grubin: You were raised in an unreligious protestant family, but as an adult you converted to Catholicism. How have you integrated your non-religious upbringing and current secular literary life with your religious observance and passion?Fanny Howe: If you have grown up in a secular world you can't ever really leave that point of view behind. I always say that I am (instead of a Roman Catholic) an atheist Catholic. I am half an atheist; I am at home, so to speak, in a secular intellectual environment.EG: Your first poem in your book, Gone, ends with the line: "my face shining up I lost faith but once." I have read that line so many times. It's like a mathematical equation.FH: Yes, it is a mathematical equation.EG: I lost faith but once equals once I had faith. The point is, if you have faith, even just once, that is very powerful. FH: Exactly. I had this artist friend, Italo Scanga, who said that he was happy for five minutes once in his life on a train in Italy with his mother during the war. He remembered happiness down to a matter of specific moments. Happiness in this case can be equated with God. EG: All it takes is once.FH: It explodes the sequence in some astonishing way.EG: And then you are always trying to get back to that.FH: Each religion has methods that are supposed to help you live with the abandonment of that experience or to help you get back to that experience. So it's either a going towards or a returning; as in so much desire for good, there is no fixed direction.EG: Didn't Simone Weil say that an atheist is more religious or is closer to God than most people who call themselves "religious"? Is it because doubt ironically intensifies religious feeling? In your poem, "They Are, They Must" (see page xxx) you write that, "Money has always / Been huge and out of sight like God / Who does not exist but is." Those lines seem to capture the simultaneous faith and non-belief you hold at the same time. And the money reference seems slightly playfully blasphemous. FH: Weil meant that those who describe God with attributes and emotional responses to each person are transgressing against the unknowability of God. Atheists have enough sensitivity to leave God alone. In this sense, I know that I am half atheist, and if I didn't know it, I would be blind. Half of me every day wakes up and feels alien, alienated on a dangerous planet. As for money, it has developed many of the attributes of the named God. It has replaced God. Penance, purgatory, these can be metaphors for cash payments.

I like the way this poem uses the image of spaciousness.

In his introduction to 2nd Corinthians, St. Paul uses a word for "affliction" (thlipsis) that has the connotation of constraint, and pressure, like Teresa's "tunnel." The remedy for thlipsis is paraklesis (cognate with Paraclete)--"comfort." God gives us comfort in our afflictions and enables us to comfort others with the same comfort we have received.

Part of the agony of life is the alienation that all feel and we know that too many times religion has insulted God by charging for mercy. But to go as far as to say that Atheists have more sensitivity than believers because believers claim a personal relationship with God is begging many questions.No question we cannot judge and only God can see hearts. And some alleged believers are not genuine. At the same time most believers work out their salvation with fear and trembling knowing their help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. To prefer atheists over them is, you know, .....ridiculous.

Atheism is not necessarily incompatible with prayer, contemplation, despair and spirituality (or interior life, if you prefer a more neutral term. See D. Midbar's essay on Atheist Prayer at

Angel, all that blog does is prove that God exists. It is a fantasy which exceeds any religious fantasy ever concocted.

This must be another. "Birds build, but not I build...":Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen justa loquar adte: quare via impiorum prosperatur? |&c.| (Jerem. xii 1.)Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contendWith thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why mustDisappointment all I endeavour end?Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dostDefeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lustDo in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakesNow, leav{`e}d how thick! lac{`e}d they are againWith fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakesThem; birds build -- but not I build; no, but strain,Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.***God's reply to the original questioning complaint from Jeremiah is a question as well: "If racing against men wearies you, how will you run against horses? And if in a land of peace you fall headlong, how will you manage in the thickets along the Jordan?" (Jer. 12:5)

In the one sonner, it's: "leave comfort root-room," and in the other: "send my roots rain." Lovely.

Here's a link to one of my favorites. Hopkins confronts the terrifying sense that all life is process, everything is in flux, is transient, nothing holds. But ,as so often, there is a turn at the end of the poem, and all is well.

Susan, in both your poem and Fr. Komonchak's the poet calls himself Jack: Jackself, Jack joke. I take this to mean his finitude, like Shakespeare's "poor, bare, forked animal." Jack's a diminutive, could even be a dog's name. And he's still Jack, even as immortal diamond.Do you think the turn rings false?Here's another where Christ comes in at the end, not as a reversal, but as the intensification of created good. It's almost a Song of Innocence, compared to the Song of Experience you linked to. (I find the first couple of lines unconvincing, even though I'm part Celt): Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there! Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes! The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies! Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare! Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare! -- Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize. Buy then! bid then! -- What? -- Prayer, patience, alms, vows. Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows! These are indeed the barn; withindoors house The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows. If Hopkins had said "fasting" instead of "patience" I would not like it half so much.

Kathy, I think the ending rings true, though I can see why you might have asked that question. On first reading the poem, the ending may come as a surprise, even a shock, despite the hint in the title. There is a lot of pressure built up and released there. But the longer you look at the poem as a whole, the more the logic of the imagery works to earn, even demand that ending. Its not a trick ending, but it is bold. The whole thing is a bravura performance, a bit over the top, but then, what a mind-bending subject!

Susan:It's a whirlwind, and I've never really looked at it before. Thank you.By mind-bending subject, do you mean, how the immortal is not undone by the mortal? Or how the identity of the human, in Christ, is not undone, even though all created beings are drive in and out of being? Even though the human is also "matchwood"? Or something else?I'm also curious about how time steps into an "all at once." After the Resurrection's beacon shines across the deck, the poem is still moving as wildly as ever. Can't quite understand the transition from fire to diamond.

Well, Kathy, you are certainly right about the whirlwind. The poem starts off with all those dazzling images of the elements-- earth, air, fire, and water-- in breathless motion, transformation, change. (Its enough to make the reader giddy.) Man enters the picture in terms of marks left behind with massive effort, marks that will, in the nature of things, soon disappear. Everything, it seems, will be swept up and ultimately quenched as natures bonfire burns on. And the thought that this includes man, natures clearest-selved spark, doomed to be obliterated, blurred, forgotten, is momentarily overwhelming. Then the thought of the Resurrection breaks in like a trumpet call, a rescue beacon. I think the sense of Flesh fade, and mortal trash/Fall to the residuary worm; world wildfire, leave but ash is that these things may happen, but it doesnt matter in the light of the Resurrection. So yes, these things do still appear to go on, but in the light of the Incarnation and Resurrection, this Jack, (Kathy, you are absolutely right about the sense of that term! ) joke, poor potsherd sees his own immortality assured.So how do you get from fire to diamond? Diamonds are bits of carbon, that have been exposed to extremely high pressure and high temperatures, deep in the earth. You might say they have been part of natures bonfire, and in fact many come to the surface through volcanic action. They may not literally be, as the De Beers syndicate would put it, forever but some date from a very early stage in the earths development.. So I guess their history, properties, and associations combine to make them a useful symbol here in so many ways. But thats Hopkins. Just when you think you have him figured out, you see a whole other raft of associations at work as well!

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