In 1885, during the difficult years of exile in Dublin and demanding labor as a professor, Hopkins wrote a series of poems that Robert Bridges called “the terrible sonnets.” In most of these poems, Hopkins explores the theme of exile from God, the alienation and doubt that all believers feel at times. These feelings tend to lead to self-loathing, because it is the human self that stands as a barrier to permanent union with God.
In “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” the poet awakens in the dark, implicitly awaiting the light of day. The word “fell,” however, indicates that this is more than a literal awakening in the night. A fell is the hide, or pelt, of a dead animal. His feeling the fell of dark suggests imprisonment in an animal body and the desire to escape into a “body of light.”
In the rest of the first quatrain of this modified Italian sonnet, the poet addresses his heart, lamenting the “black hours” they have spent, the terrors they have experienced together in this seemingly endless night. In the second quatrain, he says that he has been speaking metaphorically, that where he has said hours he means years. In fact, his whole life has been lived in the dark of separation from God, yearning for the light of final union. All of his prayers to God have been like dead letters, sent to one who is distant. Dead letters are not delivered and may be returned to the sender. This comparison emphasizes the...
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