Springs the stress felt,
Not first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt;
Stroke and a stress that storms and stars deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt,
(But it rides time like riding a river,
And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss):
This section begins to discuss suffering. Considering all the references later on to the storm’s actions serving God, it would seem that God Himself sent the storm which sank the Deutschland. Hopkins rejects this view, however. The storm did not come from heaven, not from God, but from nature. Since God created nature, though, doesn’t that mean he causes the storm too? It seems that way, but Hopkins still holds, without yet explaining it, that God does not cause evil. The Catholic perspective is that God never wills evil, but he allows evil for the sake of greater good: man’s free will, for example. In cases where nature itself seems to be causing the evil, the case is more difficult, though. I tend to think that original sin did such damage to creation that it causes many “natural” things that God never intended in the original plan of the universe.
The sixth and seventh lines of the stanza are rather obscure to me. I would think the guilt would be flushed—in the sense of the blushings of an awakened conscience—and not hushed. Maybe Hopkins is referring to the mystery of redemptive suffering. A guilty soul welcomes the stroke of suffering in the hope that it will help purge away sin.
In the last line, we see the effect of suffering: it shakes the faith even of the faithful, while the faithless go astray in searching for explanations.
Of his going in Galilee,
Soft-lain grave of a womb-life grey,
Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and driven Passion, and frightful sweat,
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be;
Though felt before, though in high flood yet,
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,
Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush! Flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full! Hither then, last or first,
To the hero of Calvary, Christ’s, feet;
Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it – men go.
The origin of the stroke of the storm is not dated to the first sin, but to Christ’s life on earth. The connection, I suppose, is that Christ suffered, and therefore it is fitting for us to suffer even though Christ’s death did not cause our suffering.
Christ’s life in the womb is already referred to as a grave. This connects to the difficulty I’ve always had with T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” when birth is so like death. I can somewhat understand it, though, by realizing what the Incarnation must have been to the Eternal God. What was infinite became finite, what was immortal became mortal—is this not a kind of death? By the first moment of Christ’s conception, He had already set His foot on a road He knew would end in death.
The “discharge” of the Passion—a strange term, but I think it must refer to the blood and water pouring out of Christ’s side. His heart, as yet, was still unknown: though some had felt its love before, and though the love still pours forth today, the telling moment was when His heart burst. The image is of a hunted creature “hard at bay,” turning to use its last weapon. Christ’s weapon is His love, not completely let loose in His death until the moment evil had apparently most triumphed.
So much for His heart. What about ours? We “lash with the best or worst / Word last.” What does this mean? I think it refers to the moment of our death: how we become our best or worst at our last moment. Christ’s heart spilled forth itself in His death; we also pour our ourselves in our death, and whatever we contain within us is revealed at its best—or worst. “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”
A sloe is a fruit, something like a plum I believe, which has been kept in lush leaves till its moment of ripeness. When the mouth bites it and it bursts, its juice gushes forth, sour or sweet, revealing the true nature of the fruit. Sometimes a beautiful fruit is sour within. In the same way our being pours out at the moment of our death, revealing us as a good or bad fruit. In a flash we fill up the measure of all we have ever been. I imagine a cup that Christ holds out to catch our soul, and we instantly fill it up at that moment with all the good or bad we contain within ourselves.
There is a command, then: come to Christ’s feet, Christ the “hero of Calvary,” by His death. Traditionally a hero would die fighting—but we know that on a spiritual level, Christ was fighting at the moment of His death, not with swords but with His love and mercy. We must come to Christ now, whether we are at the beginning of our lives or the end, because at any moment, unwilled and unwarned, our death may come.