Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
“Carrion Comfort” describes a struggle of faith that takes the form of wrestling with despair—or, more specifically, of the poet wrestling with God during a period of weakness. It is a Christian allegory of the dark night of the soul, including biblical allusions in images of struggle and winnowing. Despite...
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“Carrion Comfort” describes a struggle of faith that takes the form of wrestling with despair—or, more specifically, of the poet wrestling with God during a period of weakness. It is a Christian allegory of the dark night of the soul, including biblical allusions in images of struggle and winnowing. Despite its inclusion in the six “terrible sonnets,” it is actually a profoundly moving affirmation of God’s love of humanity and a promise of hope no matter how despairing a person might feel; it also introduces the powerful psychological truth that it is often through surrender, through giving up the struggle, that the greatest peace and victory is found.
It is very difficult, when discussing a Hopkins poem, to separate the meaning from the form, as Hopkins developed his own personal idiosyncratic means to best express the emotional struggles and theological truths he wished to convey. The problem Hopkins poses in the octave of the poem is that of the struggle with despair, even the contemplation of suicide, the greatest sin in the Catholic faith, as it implies a lack of faith, true despair, the rejection of the belief that God can and will solve all problems and forgive all sins. One is led to wonder why God would send such agony, such despair, and such pain upon those he claims to love.
The speaker then goes on to describe his suffering as a physical struggle, a sort of wrestling match, not with despair but with someone else not revealed until the final line. All the reader knows at first is that the opponent is “terrible” and “rude,” all-powerful with a right foot that can wring the world, that he lays a biblical lion-limb against the speaker and scans his “bruised bones” with an almost erotic desire—“with darksome devouring eyes.” He also fans with tempests the heaped and frantic speaker, making it clear that the opponent is persistent and supernatural. The speaker is forced to ask the purpose of all this suffering.
The response that is presented in the final sestet is that this struggle will bring about two glorious resolutions. One is the winnowing of the sinner, which will leave him “sheer and clear.” Second is the complete surrender and submission of the sinner, who in kissing the rod—thereby surrendering to God—becomes in that action triumphant, for it is not the punishing rod which is kissed, but rather the hand of God. In that act of kissing the hand of his opponent, the speaker wins salvation: By losing, he wins far more gloriously. In this night—“That night, that year/ Of now done darkness”—he “lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer” for the glorious outcome. Finally it becomes clear that this supernatural opponent with whom he has been wrestling is actually God, revealed cleverly with the parenthetical exclamation “(my God!) my God!” emphasizing the terrible and wonderful glory of that struggle.