The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “Carrion Comfort” displays brilliantly the complex prosody he developed for himself from many poetic sources, including Old English, Welsh, Italian, and various religious traditions. Despite its initial impression of difficulty, with a careful reading both the meaning and the form become clear. This poem must be read aloud, however, if the reader wishes to understand Hopkins’s profoundly moving struggle with despair and with God.

“Carrion Comfort” is a variation on the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet form; this poem was one of a series of six sonnets Hopkins wrote in 1885 that have been called the “terrible sonnets” and part of a larger cycle known as the “sonnets of desolation” because of the tremendous power and pain in them. In this poem, though, Hopkins is defying the despair that threatens and even appears to overwhelm him in other sonnets of this cycle. He entitles this despair “carrion,” after the dead and putrefying flesh that buzzards and other scavengers devour; he refuses to feed upon it, to find comfort in that despair.

In the first quatrain he resists both the temptation of despair and suicide and proclaims his ability to hope, or, if that is too extreme, at least to wish for day and “not choose not to be.” He will not “untwistthe last strands of man/ in [him]”; that is, he will not give up his humanity to despair. In the second quatrain the poet speaks to an adversary who is as yet unknown to the reader, calling him only “thou terrible,” and questions why the speaker is so cruelly, as well as rudely, treated by him. He uses diction that is biblical in its implications, such as “lay a lion-limb against me” and the imagery of winnowing grain.

In the final sestet, the speaker answers his own questions; he is roughly treated so that he might be clarified and chastened, brought to “[kiss] the rod” of God, and by that submission actually be saved. Thus the winner of the match may be either the “hero whose heaven-handling flung” him, or the speaker himself who, by wrestling with but finally submitting to God, has become a winner in the wrestling match he has endured. Thus salvation comes through surrender, a profound paradox that is part of the Christian tradition.

“Carrion Comfort” is a poem of faith, tested and triumphant, in which the poet rejects the option of suicide, affirms some hope in his life, wrestles with God, and finds himself saved by submission. It displays examples of some of Hopkins’s innovative devices, including the preponderance of repetition, alliteration, strong stresses, and a wrenching of syntax that results in a powerful evocation of the emotional and spiritual struggle that is its topic.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

Hopkins occasionally uses archaic language and portmanteau words in his poetry to express his often convoluted ideas. In “Carrion Comfort” the most noticeable language choices are the use of the word “rude” as a verb; the creation of the compound words “wring-world,” “lion-limb,” and “heaven-handling”; the coining of the portmanteau word “darksome”; the archaism of the word “coil” to mean confusion or conflict; and the ambiguity and double usage of terms such as “rock” in “Thy wring-world right foot rock?” One of the most striking examples of evocative language is the use of the word “not” four times in the first two lines of the poem, each of them stressed, in conjunction with the phrase “untwistthese last strands of man/ in me,” thus calling up the idea of unknotting as well the negation implied in the word “not.”

The rhyme scheme of the poem begins as a traditional Petrarchan sonnet with an octet of abba abba, followed by a variation on the final sestet, which is cdc dcd rather than cde cde. The meter is not regular iambic pentameter, as found in most sonnets in English. Instead, Hopkins uses the older form of counting the number of stresses in the poem, which he called sprung rhythm. He begins with spondees, in which there are a series of stresses, one after another, as in “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee”; this creates the powerful sense that the poet is forcefully rejecting a sentient being.

The point of view in the poem is the first-person voice of a man wrestling in the dark night of the soul first with despair, and then, to his great surprise, with one who turns out to be God. The heavy use of alliteration adds to the sense of struggle, as in “rude on me/ Thy wring-world right foot rock.”

Symbolism and allusion are very powerful and prevalent in this poem. Right from the title, which establishes the subject as “carrion comfort”—the comfort to be taken from eating carrion, the term Hopkins uses to describe despair—there is profound metaphoric language used to describe the pain and suffering the speaker feels. After the refusal to feed upon the “carrion” of despair, the speaker also refuses to “untwist these last strands of man,” or to become completely unknotted—he will not, he repeats six times in the opening quatrain, become unknotted, nor will he choose not to be. He affirms that he can do something, even if it is only to wish for day or refuse to not be. He continues the description metaphors of physical struggle and biblical allusions, such as the imagery of laying “lion-limb” against him, of winnowing grain, and of kissing the rod.