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.)