The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Felix Randal” is a sonnet with an Italian or Petrarchan rhyme scheme (abba, abba, ccd, ccd); although not published until 1918, it was written in 1880. The title character is known from extrinsic evidence to have been a thirty-one-year-old blacksmith named Felix Spencer, who died of pulmonary tuberculosis; Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, while a curate in a slum parish in Liverpool, visited him often, administered the last sacraments, and officiated at his funeral.

Hence the poem is largely romantic self-expression. There is little or no ironic separation between the “I” (the speaker within the poem) and the author (the historical Hopkins outside the poem), so the “I” may be taken as a Roman Catholic priest reflecting on the news of Randal’s death.

His reflections begin with an objective recollection of the facts of the sad case, but after the apparently laconic generalization of line 9, the poem breaks into a gripping personal cry of loss. Then the poem offers a lovely image of the dead friend enjoying the prime of his short life.

The first four lines react to the news that the blacksmith has died. Lines 2 to 9 are interior monologue, spoken by the speaker to himself. The speaker realizes that Felix Randal’s death means the end of dutiful visiting, the end of watching the man’s decline from outstanding vigor into bodily debility and periods of insanity as four ailments (tuberculosis and three attendant...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The sentence structure follows the sonnet’s Italian or Petrarchan rhyme scheme (abba, abba, ccd, ccd), forming four self-contained statements. The rhythm is accentual hexameter (modeled on Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English prototypes); only the accented syllables count in the scansion, and there may be any number of unaccented syllables. Hopkins believed that the English iambic pentameter line of ten relatively short syllables was too “narrow,” too light and short, relative to its Italian model in which each line had eleven relatively long syllables, so he experimented with many different formal adjustments to try to bring the English sonnet into conformity with the Italian model.

The first image that needs special comment is “mould” (line 2). In Hopkins’s poetry, the word sometimes refers to shape, sometimes to earth and burial. Here, “mould” comprises both Felix Randal’s shape of body and the vulnerability of that body to disease, death, and burial. The four fatal “disorders, fleshed” in Felix’s body may therefore be taken as symbols of the sinful, mortal, fleshly, earthly aspect of Felix (and of Everyman and Everywoman).

Next, grace impacts the world of the poem, that of traditional Roman Catholic belief and practice, through the sacraments—three of which appear explicitly. As the old name suggests, Extreme Unction was not given until death was imminent. A deeper flashback then recalls the “reprieve and...

(The entire section is 588 words.)