Hopkins Lectures 2008
















































































New Interpretaton of the Terrible Sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Peter Milward SJ Tokyo

An aura of mystery, at once fascinating and terrifying, surrounds the terrible sonnets of Hopkins' Dublin years.It is said to point back both to what St. Ignatius calls desolation or, the dark night of the soul.

Surrounding the "dark" or "terrible" sonnets that belong to Hopkins' Dublin years there is an indefinable aura of mystery, at once fascinating and terrifying. As he leaves his native England to take up his appointment as professor at the University College, Dublin, he feels a sense of evening, "earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, vaulty, voluminous ... stupendous", settling upon his mind. What he feels not only in this poem, "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves", but also in his life as a poet and a priest is the way "Our evening is over us, our night whelms, whelms, and will end us."

What it is that he feels, in what it consists, whence it is derived, is all so mysterious, lending itself to an approach from so many angles, biographical, physiological, psychological, spiritual, or rather perhaps all together. In particular it is said to point back both to what St. Ignatius calls "desolation" and to what St. John of the Cross calls "the dark night of the soul', but these are merely words for those who haven't experienced the state of soul which underlies them. Hopkins himself speaks in them as if he is by no means the only one who has undergone such a state of soul So he says, "With witness I speak this," adding that, whereas he has just been describing hours of torment, "I mean years, mean life". In other words, this isn't just his state of soul since arriving in Ireland, but it goes back to his past years in England, even perhaps from the moment he was conceived in his mother's womb. It is somehow endemic to his being, only it has come to the fore of his consciousness since his arrival in Dublin in the year 1884.

Poor Hopkins! Yet because he is a poet, he can give supreme expression to this state of soul in poetry, in a succession of poems belonging to these years, which speak to the hearts of his readers even more effectively than his earlier, brighter poems. Then, with his exaltation in the inscape of things expressed by means of sprung rhythm, he sang the praises of God through the affirmation of beauty in the natural world of light. But now, as he finds himself withdrawn from those things into a negative world of night and darkness, Godhimself seems to have withdrawn both his presence and his comfurt. Yet, paradoxically this is also fur him a spring of poetic composition, even when, as he says, the resulting poems seem to be "written in blood", coming "like inspirations unbidden and against my will". There let us leave Hopkins fur the time being, wrapped in his mystical darkness and his "dark sonnets".

Now let us, like Shakespeare in The Winters Tale, make use of the wings of Time to fly over a century and more in order to overwhelm the might of that monster Custom. It is now only a year ago that certain letters were revealed to the "yet unknowing world", formerly written by Mother Teresa to her spiritual guides over a period of some fifty years. In those letters what we find revea1ed is a state of soul not so different from that of Hopkins, except that what he proposed in poetry she put in prose. In them we find her complaining of "dryness, darkness, loneliness, torture". For her "the silence and the emptiness is so great, I look and do not see, I listen and do not hear." She even asks, what Hopkins dares not ask, "Where is my Faith?" Deep down within her she finds "nothing but emptiness and darkness," and she even concludes, "I have no Faith." Again, "when I try to raise my thoughts to heaven," she complains, "there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul."

She may be assured by her guides that God loves her, but, she says, "the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul." In other words, her state of soul is more or 1ess that which we find pervading Hopkins' dark sonnets, and she may be counted among those witnesses to whom he appeals for confirmation, though the recurring word she uses to describe it is "emptiness" - with a possible evocation of what St. Paul means by the kenosisor "self-emptying' of Christ in the incarnation (Phil.ii. 7). And all this, she says, almost like Hopkins, has been going on "more or less from the time I started 'the work'." This comparison between Hopkins in Dublin and Mother Teresa in Calcutta, at a remove of a century or so, may help to bring the Victorian poet more up-to-date, tapping as it does on what he calls in the brighter circumstances of his sonnet on "Spring', "a strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning'.

Only now, as a result of the Fall, the "sweet being' has been changed to a bitter being, as he feels this is now "God's most deep decree" which "bitter would have me taste", and "my taste was me". But now let us follow this "strain" not merely to Hopkins and Mother Teresa, nor merely to St.Ignatius and St. John of the Cross, but all the way back to the lone and empty cry of Christ himself from his cross of agony; "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" On this cry; moreover, we may listen to the inspired words of G.K Chesterton commenting on them in The Everlasting Man, "If there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased fur him, and fur one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute, and God had been forsaken of God."

That is not, however, the end. Nor is the resurrection the end. After all, as St. Paul himself recognizes, there is a necessity incumbent on him and on all followers of Christ, to make up in himself and his body all that is wanting to the sufferings of Christ. This is the mystery that we find subsequently stated by Pascal, "Jesus Christ is in agony till the end of the world." It isn't only that he is with us, as he has promised, till the end of the world, but that he is also suffering in us all that time. This is what Hopkins also asks in one of his dark sonnets, "Where is he who more and more distils! Delicious kindness?" - to which he answers, "He is patient", not just in the passive sense of mere patience, but in the active sense of suffering.
This is, moreover, what we find in one of the darkest of the dark sonnets, beginning with the words, "No worst."

One thing that characterizes this sonnet, in contrast to all the others, is the extent to which the poet draws on the ideas and very words of Shakespeare by way of what he calls "an underthought". From the outset he reveals the Shakespearian influence from Edgar's words in the opening scene of Act IV in King Lear, ''Who is't can say, 'I am at the worst'?! I am worse than e'er I was." Again, in the sestet, beginning, "0 the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall! Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed', Hopkins still bears in mind Edgar's words to his blinded father Gloucester, "How fearful! And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low." Then, together with Edgar, Hopkins is also thinking of Kent's words in the storm, "Man's nature cannot carry! The affliction nor the fear" (iii, 2), and "The tyranny of the open night's too rough! For nature to endure." (iii.4) - in his own words, "Nor does long our small! Durance deal with that steep or deep."

Again, where Kent urges Lear, "Hard by here is a hovel! Some friendship will it lend you against the tempest" (ili.2), Hopkins similarly urges himself: "Here, creep,! Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind." In other words, the poet is somehow looking back to this tragic masterpiece of Shakespeare and identifying himself now with Edgar and now with his poor, blinded father, now with Kent and now with his poor, maddened master. But that isn't all. After all, what, we may ask with Hamlet, is he to Kent or Edgar, Lear or Gloucester, that he should weep for them? They are but creatures of the fictive imagination, who have never had any existence in reality.

Yet we weep for them, and the dramatist encourages us to do so. Then, we may ask, where is the reality, if it is not to be found in this great play of Shakespeare's? Well, for the reality we have to look from the play to the story behind the play, and that is unquestionably, if we may follow the precious hint of Pascal, the story of the passion and death of Christ on the cross. In this play, too, Shakespeare himself drops more than a hint that this is his real meaning. It is the hint implied in the words of Edgar, as he looks on the sorrowful meeting of the two old men, "0 thou side-piercing sight!" UV; 6) - recalling the words of St. John, "One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance" (xix. 34). It is also the hint implied in the words of Kent, as he looks on the pitiful ending of Lear, "Break, heart, I prithee, break!" (v.3) Such is the implication of the Christian value of "compunction of heart" (literally, piercing of the heart), as one contemplates the agony of Christ on the cross, according to the method of the Spnitual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which comes to a climax both in the piercing of the side of Christ, or the opening of his sacred heart, and in his deposition from the cross when he is laid in the arms of his sorrowing mother in the tableau of the pieta.

This is precisely what Shakespeare goes on to dramatize in the final moments of Lear, when Albany suddenly draws the attention of those present with the excited words, "0 see, see!" ­ recalling the very words of Jeremiah in the Lamentations, "Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow!" (i.12) These aren't just words that are taken from the Bible, but they are deeply enshrined in the Church's liturgy for Holy Week. repeated no less than three times, and applied to the sorrowing Mother as she holds the dead body of her innocent Son. It is as if the whole dramatization of King Lear barely concealed Passion play, leading up to this moment of utmost pity for all Christians in such a manner as to surprise us from behind, as Chesterton again says in The Everlasting M81~ "from the hidden and personal part of our being", leading us to recognize the hidden reality of what we have so long taken for granted Again, however, that isn't all. Rather, as a Christian dramatist with his roots in mediaeval drama, Shakespeare isn't merely looking back at a Biblical past, at a scene that took place some fifteen centuries before his time. He is looking directly at the Elizabethan present, when so many of his fellow countrymen have been suffering, as "recusants", in all innocence "the persecutions" not (as he says in King Lear ii .3) of "the winds and the sky", but of their own unjust rulers.

It is precisely when we look from the superficial layer of the old British story of King Lear and his three daughters to the barely concealed layer of Biblical allusion, and from the Passion play derived from the dramatic tradition of the Middle Ages to what the dramatist sees in the contemporary drama of the suffering English Catholics of his own time, that the reality of what I call his "meta-drama" stands out. It is the drama of those who have been enduring the reality of the past fifty years of Elizabethan persecution, which has shown none of the hoped-for signs of relaxation in the new reign of King James I, and it is but a continuation of what Jesus Christ himself has been suffering in his affIicted members and will continue suffering in them till the end of the world.

This is why both Kent and Edgar are portrayed in almost explicit terms of the hunted priests of that time, driving them to go into hiding from intelligence and into disguise. It is also why Lear himself as king stands for his suffering country, not "Britain" (whose name is never mentioned in the play) but England, and his good daughter for the old Catholic faith which he himself formerly banished for her truth. So when he at last recognizes her in the climactic moment of 'discovery', or what Aristotle called anagnorisis , she replies with an evocation of the divine name, 'And so I am, I am!' She is indeed, what her name literally implies, Coeur de Lear , 'the heart of Lear', and deep in her heart we may find the real meaning of the spiritual anguish experienced both by Hopkins and by mother Teresa. Their suffering was never in vain!

Links to 2008 Hopkins Festival Lectures

|| Editing Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Fancy in Hopkins Poetics || Hopeful Hopkins || Dolben and Hopkins || Dancer Isadora Duncan and Hopkins Poetry || Hopkins and Water Imagery || The Dark Sonnets || Hopkins Interpretation || A Scottish Reading of Hopkins Poetry || John Henry Newman and Translation ||