I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day

by Gerard Manley Hopkins
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

In 1885, during the difficult years of exile in Dublin and demanding labor as a professor, Hopkins wrote a series of poems that Robert Bridges called “the terrible sonnets.” In most of these poems, Hopkins explores the theme of exile from God, the alienation and doubt that all believers feel at times. These feelings tend to lead to self-loathing, because it is the human self that stands as a barrier to permanent union with God.

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In “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” the poet awakens in the dark, implicitly awaiting the light of day. The word “fell,” however, indicates that this is more than a literal awakening in the night. A fell is the hide, or pelt, of a dead animal. His feeling the fell of dark suggests imprisonment in an animal body and the desire to escape into a “body of light.”

In the rest of the first quatrain of this modified Italian sonnet, the poet addresses his heart, lamenting the “black hours” they have spent, the terrors they have experienced together in this seemingly endless night. In the second quatrain, he says that he has been speaking metaphorically, that where he has said hours he means years. In fact, his whole life has been lived in the dark of separation from God, yearning for the light of final union. All of his prayers to God have been like dead letters, sent to one who is distant. Dead letters are not delivered and may be returned to the sender. This comparison emphasizes the speaker’s despairing sense of entrapment. Unable to communicate with God, he is caught forever in painful communion with his suffering heart.

In the sestet, he says that he understands that God has deliberately given him this experience of exile, though here he says little about why this is the case. In another dark sonnet, “Carrion Comfort,” he suggests that God’s purpose may be to strengthen or purify him in some way, but in this poem he concentrates on the experience of being made to experience the bitterness of his own flesh.

Though his imagery repeatedly suggests loathing of his physical body, it is not clear that it is the body itself that he hates. Rather, what hurts him is that being in a body prevents his union with God. He says “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” This line seems to say that his body is like dough and his spirit like yeast. That yeast should raise and “ennoble” the dough, but instead it sours it. The problem seems, therefore, not to be in the body or the dough but in the isolation of the spirit, the “selfyeast.” What is needed is a renewing influx of the Holy Spirit as it is presented in “God’s Grandeur.” Perhaps a brilliant visionary experience as in “The Windhover” or “Hurrahing in Harvest” would seem a consoling reply to one of his dead letters, a glimpse of light that would promise a greater light to come. Nothing of that kind, however, comes to the speaker in this poem. His final reflection is that this experience is like that of the damned, except that for them it is worse. He does not explain why at the end of the poem, but the beginning has made this clear: because the damned have no expectation of the day, they have no faith and, therefore, no hope.

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