Monday, November 14, 2005

I wake and feel the fell...

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

* * *

This is one of Hopkins's most despairing poems. I fell upon it a few nights ago. It is a poem about night, both literal and symbolic. The speaker wakes at night. The night is long and dark, but the speaker has not spent it sleeping, and will not sleep while awaiting "longer light's delay." The night does not end, though the speaker wishes it to.

The second quatrain shows that the night is spiritual as well as physical; it is not a night of hours but of years. He cries out in anguish, but he does not feel he is heard. The "dearest" one to whom he writes "lives, alas! away." He writes the letters, but they are not answered; the loved one must be far away.

"I am gall; I am heartburn." This line signaling the volta is my favorite. Life is bitter to him -- and not just life, but himself. His sorrow is the very thing he cannot flee, his own flesh and blood. God built him a body, and yet he finds it a curse.

He feels himself to be a souring dough: his spirit is the yeast that turns the whole self sour. This explains how God can have made his body and yet have the body turn to a curse: the speaker's sinful spirit has soured it.

He then sinks to the very depths of misery, comparing himself to the sweating souls in Hell. The torment of the damned consists in having to live with themselves, with their own despicable selves -- but worse. Worse how? I believe in the loss of God, in addition to their own hatred of themselves. And the speaker shares this torment, too, because he feels God is "alas! away." In this poem he explains how he has experienced a taste of Hell, even while living on earth.

1 comment:

Santiago said...

a dark night of the soul? perhaps the experience of nothingness that St Therese felt in her final days?