Hopkins Lectures 2001

Rope imagery in the later poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Kimiko Hotta, Japan


Rope imagery, recurrent in The Wreck of the Deutschland, appears in a variety of ways in four of Hopkins's Dublin poems written between 1885 and 1887, namely Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, No worst, there is none; The Soldier, and Carrion Comfort.

In these poems, Hopkins juxtaposes the rope metaphor with other images in a seemingly unrelated manner, or he merely suggests the image without an explicit reference. This particular image, in other words, is treated as one of 'a phantasmal succession of unrelated images' (Peter Milward, Landscape, 84).

The purpose of this paper is to study the significance of the rope image in these four poems with reference to its various usages in The Wreck of the Deutschland and in Hopkins's other poems written earlier, leading to the conclusion that the image expresses one of the main themes of Hopkins's poetry - man's relationship with God.


Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, although completed after some of the so-called 'terrible sonnets', serves as an introductory poem to the sonnets. Hopkins' poems belonging to his days at St. Bueno's, Oxford, Liverpool, and Stonyhurst can generally be called poems of daylight, while the subsequent poems he wrote in Dublin represent the world of night. Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, which presents the changing process from day to evening and then to night, functions as a bridge between these two poetic worlds.


In Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, the rope image is suggested first in the phrase, For earth her being has unbound (1. 5). This line recalls the first stanza of The Wreck of the Deutschland where the speaker compares himself to 'a length of rope which has been twisted and then unraveled' ( Mariani, p. 52). The speaker addresses: God:

'Thou hast bóund bónes and véins in me, fástened me flésh, /And áfter ít álmost únmade, what wíth dréad/Thy doing' (II. pp. 5 - 7)

The speaker's whole being is called into existence by God, and now it has almost been unmade by the storm the same God has caused. In Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, it is not only man but also the world itself which is about to be unbound with the coming of darkness. Darkness will cover all the distinct features of nature; 'her dapple is at end' (I. p. 5).

This 'dapple' or distinctness in nature and in man is what Hopkins treasures and sings of in his bright sonnets. And he finds the enthusiasm for individuality similar to his own in the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus whom he calls of 'realty the rarest-veined unraveller'.

In Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, the rich variety of form and colour in the world of nature dealt with in Hopkins's bright sonnets is summarized as the:

'skéined stained véined variety' (I. 11)

referring to the threads of various colours wound severally in many skeins. This variety of form and colour runs, for example, in The Sea and the Skylark.

In the poem Hopkins notes that the skylark flies up and down singing and drawing an arc in the sky. The arc the lark draws is the 'new-skeinèd score'(I. 7), 'a score in the musical sense' (Letters p. 164).

This image, both visible and audible at the same time, conveys the joy of the bird vibrant with life. But now in Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves,

Hopkins declares that it is time 'for the threads to be unwound and then rewound on two spools, without regarding their precise hue' but 'according to their general shade'(Landscape, p. 88).

The black - and - white picture brought forth is primarily that of the world of nature gradually losing colours and shapes in the dusk. Everything will finally be black when night prevails. Considering the night as
symbolic of death, the process of winding the threads on the two spools
can mean God's judgment of man following death. Each man then is going
to be wound either on the white or black spools he final image with which the poem ends is again related to the rope.

It is the picture 'of a rack/Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe'; and shelterless, thoughts against thoughts in groans grind' (II. pp. 13 - 14). The typically Hopkinsian coinages, 'selfwrung' and ';selfstrung', suggest that the soul on the rack is left to itself, cut off from the source of life.

The self here is no longer 'roped with' a vein of 'Christ's gift' as the speaker of The Wreck of the Deutschland feels himself to be (st. 4). It is tormenting itself while binding and twisting. This image of the rack must be an oracle given by Sibyl to the souls sentenced to hell.'

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.

In the often discussed imagery of the inner mountains in the sestet of No worst, there is none" cited above, there is a picture of a man most generally interpreted as clinging 'with gradually failing strength to a crumbling ledge above an abyss' fearing that he might fall down( p. 178).

However, the readers can also imagine this man to be holding on to a rope which connects him to his guide in an Alpine climb; for Hopkins himself enjoyed mountain climbing and referred to it in his sermons and meditations (SeeSermons, p. 169).

In man's spiritual life, once he has said 'yes' to God's call, he is always roped to the unseen guide Christ who is far above us Guide. (p. 36) The inner struggle of the speaker recorded here is his desperate attempt to cling on to the line of hope on the verge of despair.

Other than in The Wreck of the Deutschland, the rope image is most apparent in the opening lines of 'Carrion Comfort' with such words as 'untwist,'Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;

Not untwist - slack they may be - these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

Not untwist - slack they may be - these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;Not untwist - slack they may be - these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

The picture evoked here reminds the readers of the image of a man as a length of rope suggested at the very beginning of The Wreck of the Deutschland and also the image of the world unbinding itself in Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves. The speaker of this poem feels that he too has been twisted by God and now almost unravelled. It is interesting that this seemingly farfetched comparison of man to a rope made by Hopkins in the 1880's has been scientifically supported by the discovery of the structure of human genes in 1953.

Dr. Francis Crick and Dr. James Watson discovered that a gene consists of the double helix of DNA, which are two strands complementary to each other (Lehninger et al, pp. 789 - 790).

Hopkins' modernity may lie in his new rhythm and his language which coincides with the interesting perceptions in areas of scholarship other than literature as observable in this DNA concept.

The speaker of Carrion Comfort, in an extreme condition of suffering and faced with the temptation to despair, knows that however loose the strands of his manhood may be, it is he himself "who must keep them joined (Robinson, p. 136). And so he expresses his strong will not to yield.

As Mariani suggests, there may be a pun on not - knot here (p. 229). Ellis, who has paid more attention to the rope image in the poem than other critics, says she cannot quite accept Mariani's proposal. Her argument, however, is not convincing enough because she merely mentions her objection in a footnote without any definite reason (p. 256).

When read aloud, the line Not, I'll not, can also sound Knot, I'll knot, to emphasize the speaker's unwavering resolution. He does not choose to be (I. p. 4). In other words, he does not choose to die but he chooses to continue fighting.

Such strong resolution on the speaker's part, however, is shaken when he himself is rocked rudely by the terrible monster (II. pp. 5 - 6). Here the sense of helplessness he feels is similar to that which is felt by the speaker of The Wreck of the Deutschland when he describes the headless body of the man with a rope's end round him dangling the to and the fro/Through the cobbled foam -fleece (st. 16).

This man had been brave enough to try to save/The wild woman - kind below but failed to do so and lost his own life. The speaker of The Carrion Comfort is aware of his own utter powerlessness and still he [kisses] the rod (I. p. 10); he accepts what is offered him, all that toil and all that coil (I. p. 10).

Here the word coil, suggestive of a spiraled rope, signifies all the turmoil and trouble of life in this world.

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can reeve a rope best.

The above excerpt from The Soldier is neither a major passage nor from Hopkins' major work. However it serves as an appropriate conclusion of this study of the rope image in Hopkins' poetry. As a nautical term, to reeve a rope means to thread a rope through a ring or rope together. Therefore the primary meaning of the passage is that Christ our King is the most accomplished seaman on sea as well as the best soldier on land. Christ is often pictured as the best soldier who wins victory on Calvary by seemingly losing the battle. The image of Christ as the best seaman can be studied in reference to The Wreck of the Deutschland.

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can reeve a rope best.Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can reeve a rope best.In stanza 12 of The Wreck of the Deutschland, the speaker narrates the actual wreck of the ship and asks God: the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in. Citing this very line OED defines the word reeve as to gather together Suppl. O - Scz, 3d.).

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;

He of all can reeve a rope best.

On the literary level the speaker's question means why God has not gathered together those people lost in the sea: why he has allowed such a tragedy resulting in so many deaths. On the symbolic level the stormy sea stands for man's inner life. The speaker is anxious about the destiny of the dead people - whether they have been spiritually saved or not. At the same time he is concerned about all the people including himself almost drowning in the turbulent sea of life. Although the speaker asks God the question, he knows the ultimate answer. That is, God is merciful enough to send his son Christ to this world, and it is Christ who, by his death on Calvary, "has thrown out a rope to save those struggling in the) waves of this world (Milward, A Commentary, p. 102).

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can reeve a rope best.Mark Christ our King.

In stanza 4 of The Wreck of the Deutschland, Hopkins likens the relationship between man and Christ to that of water in a well and its source and as water in a wéll, to a póise, to a páne,

But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the góspel próffer, a préssure, a prínciple, Chríst's gíft (st. 4)

Here the speaker, who has said "yes" to God's call, is comparing himself tol "a water in a well which can be traced back to and linked with its source) somewhere high in the mountoins. And that source is called "a vein of . . . Christ's gift, that is, grace. Hopkins defines grace as any action, activity, on God's part by which, in creating or after creating, he carries the creature to or towards the end of its being .. . Hopkins further explains this definition as that so far as this action or activity is God's it is divine stress, holy spirit, and, as all is done through Christ, Christ's spirit (Sermons, p. 154).

The readers can imagine the streams of water twisting like silver' ropes down the rocks of the high hill, and then entering into the veins of the lower rocks to replace what is drawn out of the well. (Guide)

In this study of rope imagery in Hopkins' poems man is seen as twisted into being like strands twisted into a rope. For the primary meaning of the word rope is a length of strong and stout line or cordage, usually made of twisted strands of fibrous material.

Man's suffering in this aspect of the image is expressed as slackness of the rope as seen in Carrion Comfort. Christ who of all can reeve a rope best helps tighten the slack if man does all man can do ( The Soldier, 1. 11).

The rope connects or links something) with something else. In The Wreck of the Deutschland man's inner life is compared to the water in a well which is linked with its source high up in the mountains by a river which itself is likened to a rope in its appearance. This rope can be identified with that which connects man to his guide in mountain climbing. The unseen guide to whom the speaker of No worst, there is none desperately clings on to is Christ himself who of all can reeve a rope best, in the sense of fasten together. At the same time Christ t; saves man drowning in the waves of the world by his who of all can reeve a rope best in the sense of gather together, death on Calvary. God does not forsake man, he does not send man to the rack described in Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves if man clings to the rope thrown by Christ. Unless man chooses to cut the rope or let go, God keeps on giving divine stress like river - water flowing into a well.

The rope image in Hopkins' poems has multiple meanings. Yet, what is significant is that at the center of each of the images, in other words, at an end of each rope, there is always Christ who is supporting every man. Such is the relationship of God and man as Hopkins brings forth using the rope image. If man chooses to live with Christ, he is always roped with God through Christ's Incarnation and Redemption.

Works Cited

Ellis, Virginia Ridley. Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Language of Mystery. Columbia: University of Missouri P, 1991.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley . Ed. Humphry House. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

The Letters of GMH to Robert Bridges. Ed. Claude C. Abbott. London: Oxford UP, 1955.

The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. Norman H. Mackenzie. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1990. The Sermons and Devotional Writings of GMH. Ed. Christopher Devlin. London: Oxford UP, 1959.

Lehninger, Albert L., David L. Nelson and Michael M. Cox. Principles of Biochemistry. New York: Worth P. 1993.

Mackenzie, Norman H. A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1981.

Mariani, Paul L. A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1970.

Milward, Peter A Commentary on the Sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Tokyo: Hokuseido P, 1969. A Commentary on Gerard Manley Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland. Tokyo:1968.

Milward Peter and Raymond Schoder. Landscape and Inscape: Vision and Inspiration in Hopkins's Poetry. London: Paul Ereck, 1975.

The Readings of the Wreck: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Wreck of the Deutschland. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1976.

Robinson, John. in Extremity: A Study of Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: Cambridge UP, 197
Weyand, Norman and Raymond Schoder (eds.) Immortal Diamond: Studies in Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: Sheed and Ward, 1949.

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