The Poem

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“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 “complications,” among them a fever that makes his mind wander) fight it out to see which disorder can kill this prize victim.

The next quatrain casts further back in the history of the illness as the speaker recalls the patient’s initial impatience and denial. The anointing in line 5 was the church sacrament now called the Sacrament of the Sick, then known as Extreme Unction. Months before that, after Randal’s initial stage of cursing and denial, the priest had first administered the other two of the three “last sacraments,” Penance (confession) and the Eucharist. The priest’s impromptu prayer recapitulates the reprieve granted in confession.

After eight lines of speaking objectively about Felix Randal in the third-person-singular “he,” the ninth line is a generalization about the bond of affection that grows between the patient and a priest who comes regularly to visit. At this point a sedate, well-behaved, almost dull poem leaps to life. The little phrase “child, Felix, poor Felix Randal” is the emotional center and high point of the sonnet.

The final three lines raise an enduring image over the farrier’s grave: Felix at the height of his physical vigor, the human correlative of the huge draft-horses which he shoes so effortlessly.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 588 words.)

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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 ransom” Father Hopkins had “tendered” to Felix; these are the sacraments of Penance (confession), by which the penitent is reprieved from the judgment he faced, and the Eucharist (Communion), where the communicant receives the very Body of Christ, the ransom given on the cross in the passion and on the altar at Mass: “the Man Christ Jesus, who gives Himself as ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6; see also Mark 10:45). Hence the “tongue” and “touch” of line 10 refer less to comforting talk and handshakes and more to the sacramental form (the ritual formula of words) and matter (the action of anointing with oil, the blessing hand of the priest absolving the penitent in confession, the tendering of the consecrated host of bread)—the three sacraments Father Hopkins administered to the dying Felix Randal.

Also in line 10, however, the two uses of the auxiliary verb “had” imply that Hopkins believed that he failed to comfort Felix Randal as much as he wished: Hopkins bestowed the sacraments, but he did not possess the right “bedside manner” for a bluff working man such as Felix and never effectively communicated how dear Felix was to him. Yet in the same line 10, one notes the emergence of the intimate second-person singular; the reader is reminded that in the context of the poem’s casual dialect, “thou” expresses intimacy and informality.

The word “boisterous” in line 12 suggests much about the farrier’s earlier life. Boisterousness denotes great energy and connotes noise and lack of restraint, a kind of unbridled excess of animal vitality neither wicked nor quite human; in other poems, Hopkins calls a river “boisterously beautiful” and describes the wind on a sunny day as a “bright wind boisterous.” The word may provide a clue to the poet’s choice of “Randal” as the dead man’s last name. Three words in the poem echo it. “Ransom” (line 7) names the cure the blacksmith found in Christ. By contrast, “ramble” (line 3) and “random” (line 13) might suggest the farrier’s faults of character. He is errant and unshaped, astray and haphazard; “random” can even name a disorderly life. Further, the British “randy,” or guilty of excess, might echo in the surname Randal.