‘I wake and feel the fell…’

Last post I mentioned Hopkins’s ‘Sonnets of Desolation’. This is a group of five or six poems of a darker mood than most of Hopkins’s oeuvre, and of them this is my favourite:

 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.

The poem has a memorable first line, evoking it seems a man waking to a darkness that is both literal and metaphorical: he has woken in the night in a state of agitation, and he has woken without the ‘light’ of God’s presence (we saw in ‘God’s Grandeur’ how light signifies God and hope). That ‘fell’ in the opening line means a ‘blow’, as in, I suppose, ‘a blow that falls on someone’, although my edition carries a note explaining that it is also a word that means animal fur, like ‘pelt’ – so the line carries the sense of the shock of an unhappy awakening, but also the synesthetic sense of darkness having a kind of texture – somewhat sinisterly, that of a beast. Fell is also a northern English word for a hill, and Hopkins, who for a long time lived in Lancashire, near England’s highest fells (in Cumberland and Westmorland) would have been aware of this, so perhaps the line also carries the sense of darkness looming over him like a hill, just when light should be dawning.

Initially the poem seems to be describing a sort of dark night of the soul, a night in which the poet has been wracked by tortured thoughts and doubts, but then Hopkins tells us ‘But where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life.’ This is to say that not just this night, but the poet’s whole life has been a desperate experience, and the ‘longer light’s delay’ refers not so much to the coming sunrise, or even to the next spring, but to the end of life.

Whence, then, this despair? The second part of the first stanza (or the second quatrain, if you like) blames a state of spiritual abandonment, a sense that Hopkins has been abandoned by God. He uses the metaphor of ‘dead letters’, an old term (in itself rather poetic) for post that has been sent but for one reason or another cannot reach the addressee, to describe the ‘cries, that is prayers, that seem to have been made in vain. This is not to be interpreted as alluding to any kind of atheism on Hopkins’s part, but a yearning for a closer relationship with God – one in which Hopkins feels His presence, his prayers are answers and his spiritual doubts and anxieties are assuaged. There is a tradition of such expressions in Christianity, going right back to the Bible itself – arguably to Jesus’s own lament on the cross ‘Why hast Thou forsaken me?’ Many spirituals experience a sense of having lost a closer communion with God at some point in their lives, a kind of withdrawal of God from their daily lives and thoughts, as if He is leaving them to think and fend for themselves. Mother Teresa said that this happened to her halfway through her life – which left a long time for her to rely on faith alone – doubts, and even the odd lament, are quite understandable in such circumstances.

It can also be argued that the poem describes something much like what we would call ‘depression’ and its attendant feelings of hopelessness, dread, and even a sort of existential loathing of life itself. A psychologist might not believe in the God that Hopkins reaches out for, but the despair and loss of appetite for life is still real – atheists can experience this too, in the experience of life itself seeming to lose all meaning and significance, of the joy and colour draining out of life, of the impossibility of communicating this to others.

Whatever you want to call the state of mind described in the first part of the poem, the last stanza – the sestet if we’re being technical – is interesting. As some of you students of the Italian sonnet reading this may know, the sestet is supposed to bring a ‘turn’ – a change of focus or tone that puts what has hitherto been said in a different light. In this stanza what comes with the turn is this: that the source of despair is not God, or His supposed abandonment of Hopkins, or the world, but (I am gall, I am bitter) himself; the bitterness he is tasting is that of his own self, the reason that his spirit cannot rise is his own ‘dull dough’. And Hopkins sees a lesson to be learnt in his desolation:

I see 

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be 

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

The ‘lost’ are the damned, those who in Dante’s Inferno we see suffering fates that match the sins that they committed on earth. Dante wanted to show us that sin and misery go hand in hand, that their very worst punishment is to be who they are, to be what they have made themselves. Hopkins echoes this idea, describing the lost as being ‘the scourge’ of their ‘sweating selves’; Hopkins is hardly the type to go all fire and brimstone on us, which had – at least in literary circles – gone out of fashion since Dante’s time, but isn’t it clever how ‘scourge’ brings in the idea of punishment, perhaps too of torture, while ‘sweating selves’ brings to mind those naked sinners roiling in hellfire? Having expressed his darkest despair, Hopkins is steeling himself to accept his life on earth, and perhaps, implicitly at least, to try to be a better person, as hard as it is. While he might be describing something very like what we would call depression, he does not after all seek an external cure or comfort.



Filed under Literature, Poetry

10 responses to “‘I wake and feel the fell…’

  1. Thank you for posting this one with your commentary; you bring new insights to his dark sonnets.

  2. You have sent me back to my favorite (paperback) Hopkins, inscribed “Happy Birthday and Always” from my dear friend, David, a lovely devoted-to-Hopkins man who died in 1995. Sorry if this is maudlin, but now I feel committed to digging out some of what you say about the poem.
    “Fell” is an interesting word, as you say. As an adjective it’s not problematic ( cruel, sinister, bitter, dark), but it’s not clear that Hopkins is using it as an adjective, which adds to the levels of meaning of which you speak…….I got caught up in details: why does “him” not have a capital “H”? All the God references, including your own on commentary observe the convention of capitalizing references to the deity. I think Hopkins, like any one of us, temporarily succumbed to the darkness that takes over (nearly) when we realize how very alone we are, and even the concoction of God, which is religion, threatened to derail him. He does seem to make his peace, in the end. It strikes me that this particular group of his poems could serve as well to a Buddhist meditating on the four noble truths…..

  3. The four noble truths I can’t comment on, being unenlightened that aways – perhaps great religions think alike.
    But now then, why does “him” not have a capital “H”? I don’t know – I didn’t notice until you pointed it out! Two thoughts, though. First – and this might be in your arae of expertise (one from the scriptorium) – is the convention of capitalising pronouns referring to God an old one or relatively new? Would Hopkins certainly have done so? Second, could the “him” be there because it occurs in a simile, with the ‘dearest him that lives alas! away’ evoking, say, a soldier, the recipient, or non-recipient, of those dead letters from his love? Thus that “him” is a simile for the “Him” that Hopkins is praying to, apparently in vain.

  4. I don’t know how old that capitalizing convention is. I was raised a Roman Catholic, and it just was always done. In the sonnet usually following the one you give above the sextet reads:
    We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
    To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
    Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
    And where is he who more and more distills
    Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
    His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

    Could just be typos in the heat of composition…or an alter ego…or schizophrenia, ….or a good Angel and a bad Angel on respective shoulders,..or the addressing of an imagined audience…..but why do I sense more than one person and God In the room?

  5. I realize on further inspection that Hopkins is following the conventions of diction rather than church in the work above, capitalizing initial words of poetic lines and sentences. Lord knows he can be confusing enough without my adding my two cents to the imbroglio. Sorry! “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

  6. Glad that’s cleared up. You did have me wondering about that uncapitalised ‘he’. Still, you’re right there’s more than just God and one person in the room- Hopkins talking to himself makes two people, sort of – or a fractured identity at least. There’s an essay to be written there about how Hopkins’s poetry prefigures 20th century theories of consciousness… but who has the time?

  7. I know I can always count on you for astute literary analysis. Hopkins has an incantatory use of language that’s enviable; I like the way he sticks to Anglo-Saxon, one syllable words, but puts them in an arresting order, challenging conventional grammar norms. Well done, both by Gerry and you!

  8. Glad you enjoyed this Stew. Word order is something I didn’t consider much, but you’re right it’s worth commenting on. Again, though – who has the time – with all that dull dough in the oven, and bitter self to taste?

  9. Pingback: Thou Blind Man’s Mark | sweettenorbull

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