The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 455 words.)