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“My own heart let me more have pity on”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889)
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.

We met Gerard Manley Hopkins earlier in this series, when we read his wonderful poem “God’s Grandeur.” Today we read another Hopkins sonnet. Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a tremendously gifted man. An extraordinary and innovative poet, a brilliant classical scholar, a gifted musician, a talented artist, a faithful and conscientious priest—Hopkins was all of these things. And yet, through much of his life, he was tormented by a sense of failure and inadequacy. His poems were seldom understood, much less published; several of his assignments as a Jesuit were in inner-city parishes where he felt exiled from the natural world he so loved, or in schools where his humbling inadequacies as a teacher were always on display.
“If I could but get on, if I could but produce work, I should not mind its being buried, silenced, and going no further,” he wrote to his friend, the poet Robert Bridges, “but it kills me to be time’s eunuch and never to beget. After all, I do not despair, things might change, anything may be; only there is no great appearance of it…”
In 1884, Hopkins was assigned as professor at University College, Dublin, which was not the great academic institution it is now. It was a poor, struggling college, and Hopkins was overwhelmed with a sense of isolation and failure and entered what we would recognize now as a deep depression. “My spirits were so crushed,” he wrote, “that madness seemed to be making approaches—and nobody was to blame, except myself partly for not managing myself better and contriving a change” (to Robert Bridges, 1 September 1885).
Out of this experience of darkness came a series of remarkable poems, which Robert Bridges called “the terrible sonnets” because of their content. Of these poems, Hopkins himself wrote that they came after long silence “like inspirations unbidden and against my will.” In these sonnets, Hopkins addresses himself directly to God with great honesty, with language that resembles some of the psalms and the prophets. He writes of his sense of uselessness, of impotence, and of difficulty in praying—in one poem, he describes prayer as being like undelivered letters to a loved one far away.
We don’t know the exact order of the terrible sonnets, or sonnets of desolation, as they are sometimes called, but the poem we just heard is usually placed towards the end of the sequence, because it expresses a glimmer of hope.
In this poem, Hopkins addresses himself, entreating himself to be kinder to himself. The first lines give a vivid picture of his helplessness and mental anguish. He begs that he might “not live this tormented mind / With this tormented mind tormenting yet.” The repetition in those lines—“tormented mind, tormented mind, tormenting yet”—vividly suggests the endless cycle of negative thoughts. This state of mind is like a prison – Hopkins gives an unforgettable image of “groping round my comfortless.”
In the second part of the sonnet, Hopkins addresses himself as “Soul, self,” and then shifts the tone—“poor Jackself.” “Soul, self,” are grand, impersonal terms; “poor Jackself” is humbler, more human, more conscious of weakness. Hopkins is doing here just what he begged for at the beginning of the poem: having pity on himself in his humanity. “Call off thoughts awhile,” he says, and leave room for comfort, for joy, and for whatever God has in mind: “God knows when to God knows what.” The poem ends with a remarkable image of God smiling. God’s smile is “not wrung”—we can’t force it. It comes unexpectedly, like sky appearing “betweenpie” mountains, shedding light on “a lovely mile.” At the end of the poem, nothing has changed—but hope has entered in.
In this poem, and in the other terrible sonnets, Hopkins acknowledges the darkness he is experiencing, but he does so with the tools and the language that his faith gives him. He never stops wrestling with God. As one commentator has said, “Like Jesus’ cry on the cross, Hopkins’s sonnets of desolation are addressed to God and are themselves consolations.”






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