Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In the Liverpool slums, the classics scholar Hopkins was as far removed from his natural habitat (the university and the seminary) as Felix Randal was from his (the forge) when he lay in his sickbed. The two dislocations brought the two men together in a totally unpredictable friendship—“How far from then forethought of”—and a deep religious relationship of father and child, of tiny Father Hopkins, barely five feet tall and scarcely a hundred pounds, and “child, Felix, poor Felix Randal,” the giant blacksmith dwindling to death.
The two were bound together by the three sacraments of Penance, Eucharist, and Extreme Unction, known collectively as “the Last Sacraments,” since their reception accompanies life’s end. Since three is traditionally the number of the heaven archetype and four the number of the earth archetype, the three sacraments and the “fatal four disorders” of the poem may suggest the underlying theme of the poem: As the “mould of man” pines and dies, the graced spirit mends, finds holy friendship, and comes more to life. This poem suggests no Puritan, platonic, or Oriental rejection of materiality, for the sacraments to which Hopkins mainly attributes the transformation are insistently material, and one’s last glimpse of Felix Randal shows him totally involved with the material world. Felix is depicted in the prime of his energy, nearly innocent even in his sins, physically preeminent in a crowd of other muscular laboring men, easily managing the huge gray Shire horses of the English midlands—the largest horses in the world, larger than the Clydesdales of the north, the Suffolks of the east, the Belgians, Percherons, and other breeds of the continent—as conspicuous among ordinary carriage and saddle horses as Felix is among ordinary workmen. Since the horse symbolizes masculine libido, the poem celebrates both Felix Randal’s final achievement of self-possession and (as a horse trots noisily on new steel sandals down the cobblestone street of the reader’s imagination) the ultimate felicity which verified his given name, Felix.