WITH EVEN THE first phrase, I feel I’m out of my depth. “Worst, there is none,” I could understand. Or “No worst, there is.” But “No worst, there is none”: What can that possibly mean? That nothing worse exists? That nothing better exists? That perhaps there is no difference, ultimately, between the two?
It lacks a title, this sonnet, but what could it be called? A title would offer to ease a reader in, like a stepping-stone. There is to be no ease in this exhausting, anguished howl. Reading it is like going out into a full-force gale. Or staring into the solar eclipse (where we are warned never to stare). What’s so compelling about the poem is that it concedes nothing and will not compromise. Looking for something to put on a wedding wishes or get well card? You’ve come to the wrong 14 lines.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet highly resistant to aphorism, to the paraphrasable, quotable quote (for the most part, anyway: we’ll need to give, “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet,” from “Inversnaid,” a free pass). In his work, meaning is at the mercy of form, and language, glitzy and glamorous as a Hollywood red carpet, is always the star of the show. Language that stops us in our tracks, that won’t allow us to proceed with ease, that ruffles our understanding like a hand brushing down a feather against the natural grain of up. Language that seems to eddy and suck at what the words, taken one by one, could possibly signify. A clause that might seem negotiable will be followed by another that will seem anything but. You need your wits about you to travel through a Hopkins poem, and this one, one of his six so-called “Terrible Sonnets,” puts into action all of his swerves and about-turns, his extraordinary shortcuts of imagery, and his percussion-heavy and breathtaking sound effects that have more in common with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (not premiered until 1913) than with the polite pleasantries of, for example, Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” (written at about the same time as these poems).
We know something of the circumstances in which Hopkins wrote these sonnets: biographies inform us that he was in Dublin, excessively busy with teaching, or trying to, Latin and Greek to the unruly young male students of the Catholic University on 86 St Stephen’s Green (now Newman House). He was acutely lonely, chronically overworked, and on bad terms both with damp and dowdy Dublin and with his rather unpolished students who, in their multitude and volume, made tatters of his quiet inner world.
Even if there were no biographies and no documents to fill us in on his ample unhappiness, there would be clues aplenty in the poems. The “Terrible Sonnets” reveal a mind that darkens as we read. It is like watching a cloud sweep over a cornfield, flicking all that promising gold to gloom. How can anyone, we think, withstand this extent of misery, this frightful abeyance? How, feeling oneself unloved (even, at times by one’s chosen God), is it possible to celebrate the life force that animates our every thought and deed?
His life in Dublin seems to have been thin enough gruel. A job for which he had outlandish ambition and no practical capacity. No adjacent or sympathetic family, and little corrective and congenial company, being an Englishman (and a profoundly English man) in a town beginning to imagine ways of conjuring up a cultural tradition apparently determined to exclude the likes of him. Scant access to the natural world, which must have been piercingly difficult for him, whose faith verged on pantheism, on feeling nature as an expression of divine intention. And, perhaps most important of all (to him), a beleaguering sense of having been forsaken by the very God for whom he had relinquished all other human consolations.
How was he to bear it?
Fr. Hopkins lived the small and narrow life of a junior academic, singularly unfit to compromise his ideals of education with the daily realities of overcrowded classes, insufficient resources, and output expectations very different from his own. Too many boys. Every day the tumult of them, their funneling in and out of cramped rooms with their miscellaneous auction-lot of backgrounds and accents and families and hopes essentially different from his own. In a life such as Hopkins lived, with so much that was uncongenial to him asked of his body, his answer — perhaps the answer of every real poet — was language. In his diction, I hear all the unused mental energy of a man whose contribution, otherwise, was little more than technical obedience to a rule that had, really, no notion of what to do with such a mind as his.
Into his poetic diction went the unchanneled, the inarticulable and unfeelable, the wild energy of a mind for which his circumscribed Dublin life provided no run-off. His language bristles with that electric charge, with a life-force that is so beyond what is usually required by the quotidian business of life that I have to read it as the kind of place where most of us, if we are so inclined, would locate our most intense passions, our keenest, fiercest, least paraphrasable selves.
The fact that you can visit the room where Hopkins marshaled his “Terrible Sonnets” into being doesn’t seem to earth their extraordinary energy. I know that room and I think it not altogether implausible that the room knows me. In 1993, I worked as assistant to Dr. Christine Casey, curator of Newman House. At that time, Fr. Hopkins’s room, like nearly all the rooms on that upper floor, was a storeroom of old furniture and the Lord knows what, though the view was more or less the same as what he’d have seen from his writing desk — the Iveagh Gardens that, despite its mannerly arrangement, must have been comforting even to a man who preferred to take his nature wild. Across the corridor was the James Joyce classroom, done up as it would (might) have been at the time when he was a student there at the turn of the 20th century. We wanted to honor Gerard Manley Hopkins as another writer with close links to the heritage of that extraordinary building, and so Christine asked me, then a fledgling poet, to take on the turning of this room back into some semblance of what it might have been while Hopkins lived there for the final five years of his life, from 1884 to 1889.
The Jesuits on Leeson Street (then in the throes of the excitement of the recent attribution of a painting that had hung in their dining room to Caravaggio — The Taking of Christ is now one of the cornerstones of the collection in the National Gallery of Ireland), advised and helped, identifying appropriate furniture and donating a prie-dieu and some religious books of the period. Other items the room itself dictated: a fireplace companion (set to stand where the Dean of Studies had been seen feeding papers of Hopkins’s into the fire the day after the poet died) and, since it was his bedroom and study both, a bed, a chest of drawers, and a solid desk. I photocopied letters to and from him from the UCD archive and then steeped the copies in strong tea overnight to make them look old. (The effect must have been good since several of the copies were later pinched by visitors!) And I haunted the antique shops of Francis Street to get bed linen and a hairbrush and writing equipment and such personal things with the spare change we had to complete the project, and it was all tremendous fun. As I recall, the single most expensive item we purchased was the wallpaper. The finished room was homely (in a dowdy, dark brown, boiled religion sort of way), and might have been too homely, really, but it was beyond me then (and would still be now) to line up any domestic interior with the geography of the imagination that produced the “Terrible Sonnets.”
The room was officially opened in 1992, but in one of those odd displays of Dublin begrudgery, most of the media attention was directed at the fact that the ground-floor room in which Hopkins had spent his final few days before dying (of typhoid fever, probably) was, during subsequent renovations, converted to women’s toilets. I had done my level best to honor Hopkins with my careful (if admittedly approximate) interventions, and to evoke the colors and details of a typical Jesuit room of the time, perhaps so that the chafe of the ordinary and extraordinary in his particular case might be better accessed and understood. But the good story trumped the true story: because of the kind of historical flourish Hopkins himself might have entertained, the story of the upstairs room where he’d lived and studied and prayed and wrote “No worst, there is none” proved no match for the downstairs room where he had only died.
I spent many hours in that upstairs room, climbing the back, shiny brown stairs to what would have been, in the 18th century, servants’ quarters. I was measuring, cleaning, plotting, adjusting, imagining. In one way, I felt the room at its truest when, with all the jumble removed and the lino torn up, it seemed disjointed, disassembled, and at odds with itself. I picture it now in winter, always winter, in the kind of silvery, late afternoon latency Dublin does so well. The threadbare canopies of the Gardens’ trees beneath and the lackluster light sneaking in through glass uncleaned for decades, to fall without flourish on bare floorboards over which Fr. Hopkins used to pace in end-tether frustration (possibly) and loneliness (certainly).
I remember sitting on the floor one such afternoon, reading “No worst, there is” aloud into the room. And though I was a young woman with a job and a lover; and with a life ahead of me that cared precious little for the leaden confines (as I saw them) of Catholicism, I was also a scaldy poet, and the electric charge of Hopkins’s language scattered the stale air of the room as well as the fresh air of the life, and changed everything.
It’s not a lulling poem to read aloud: what few end-stopped phrases there are tend to finish in rhetorical, shouty question marks. Sometimes, the density and ferocity of the enjambment seems to bellow directions at you, as at the end of line seven, when the word “lingering,” amplified by being hyphenated after the first syllable and capped with an exclamation mark, both enacts its shriek and also dramatizes the caesura, so that the final “g” sound hangs like it’s being held by the ankle, but barely, over a ravine. There’s a small echo of the effect when “fall” is placed at the end of line nine, and if its rhyme words (“small” and “all’) seem a little less strategic in their end-of-line placement, that’s because by the time we meet them, the machine of the poem has already moved down several gears and is juddering exhaustedly toward its end.
It’s a poem that launches itself at a high pitch (as the first line indicates, using the word twice), and performs its own, gradual 14-line collapse, so the final line seems flat-out banal, even clichéd, as though it hasn’t the linguistic energy to muster a better end. And how could it? The 13 preceding lines are all high drama: emotional intensity and psychological ferment articulated in prosody and punctuation that cudgels and slams, that hammers home the poem’s felt desolation and abandonment.
The first stanza is the terror in full force, from that barbed and quizzical opening phrase to Fury shrieking orders at the browbeaten poet. But at the heart of it, like at the eye of the tornado, is an image of stillness, the poet’s cries envisaged as cattle huddled together (“in the main” reads the line, though I wonder if I’m alone in imagining poor beasts in the rain). It’s at that point, with the invitation that simile offers to the reader to visualize and to get involved, that I enter the poem unresistingly. For that image, with its sodden and sullen aptness, rings true to me. There to me is the winter drear and discomfort of farm work, cattle so real I can almost see the damp rising off their Friesian backs, the clotted, dark brown stink of livestock, the insouciance of the herd. I read this line and I’m back on the farm. And it will be cold and wet, of course, and I will be desperate to be somewhere that has music and galleries and people in it, instead of this gray, freezing field with nothing but cattle for company; cattle that care even less for me than I do for them.
That these cattle should be presented as the embodiment of hopelessness is, to me, the poem’s truest and most piercing note. Whenever my mind ranges round for an image to pin to that feeling of forlornness, that is what it settles on, those clumped backs and accusing eyes, following me all the way out of the field and over the horizon.
The sestet is wiser and more sensible, and more exhausted too. No longer in the thick of feeling, it can see that feeling for what it is, and have opinions about it, so far as to say that if you’ve not been there (where “there” is at the extreme of what is bearable), you haven’t a clue what it’s like. Into the third line is introduced a small, new word, “our,” allowing (howsoever narrowly) the poem to speak for fellow sufferers of that mental anguish that must be experienced to be understood. And once that word occurs, it’s as if the whole poem relaxes. Yes, there is yet a Wretch, but there is also some comfort to be offered to him, be it (the poem says), not much. Not much at all, no: the final line’s truism offers the scant relief that one’s pain today will be lightly resolved by sleep tonight and, more entirely, by death. (I can’t quite read that as a great deal of help at the moment when one feels fully overwhelmed, the promise, “Don’t worry, dear, you’ll die some day and that’ll put an end to these hysterics of yours.”)
Strange comfort too for a Jesuit to offer: not a promise of divine help; simply a statement of fact as bald as any statement of Hopkins’s will ever be. And that’s the rub of the poem, really: the absence of any proposition to set between the two realities of hopelessness and ultimate death, to mediate between. A lesser poet would have reached for his God by the end of this sonnet, I’m sure of it. But that would have closed up the poem, answered all its questions and resolved its doubts. That would have been a sentimental impulse and I cannot accuse Hopkins of sentimentality, not when his poems go so passionately up against negative feelings that are never redressed within a poem but are instead allowed to play themselves, forensically and dramatically, out.
In this poem, that playing out is a question of tone: the sestet’s deflationary tactics puncture the octave’s impassioned propositions and bring the poem sternly and decidedly to heel. It’s a perfectly formed sonnet, not only in meter and rhyme, but in how it enacts itself, committing to a description of feeling in the octave and then coming back after the deep breath of the volta with more sense than sensibility to quell the fervor and shush the impassioned voice.
I don’t believe that Hopkins sees this concluding composure or exhaustion to be any kind of true resolution to the tumult that came before, but it’s the only one he can muster. And that’s what makes the sonnet so affecting: the poet’s lack of faith in his own capacity to provide any redress for the dangerous, complex business of anxiety and suffering — for the human predicament. Even language isn’t much of an answer, ultimately: it drains itself like a container with a hole in it.
It’s how he lived, I imagine, all that feeling repressed by Jesuit rule and life circumstances, and only permitted to pierce through the surface in the poems.
This howl of doubt and fright, and how it is enacted in this sonnet, is, I think, crucial to how modern poetry works (when it does). I read Hopkins as a radical: not for the formal pyrotechnics of his inscape or sprung rhythm, exciting though they are, but for the final, spent note of this poem that admits its only answer to nerve-wracked experience is deflationary cliché. The poem cannot heal itself, and that failure seems a launching position for much of what has come afterward. No heroics. No rescuing savior. No gathering of internal resources against the battering dark. Just a poem that buckles under the impossible weight of its fierce sincerity.
It says at the end, “I’ve got nothing.” And this nothing has so much truth in it that I have learned to trust its humility more than I ever would a more robust, determined proclamation. I wonder if it’s not, perhaps, how every poem should end, saying, “Look I’ve got nothing. Except language. Which is not nothing, I hope we agree. Not nothing. Not at all.”
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Vona Groarke is an award-winning Irish poet who currently teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Her collections published by The Gallery Press include Shale (1994), Other People’s Houses (1999), Flight (2002, shortlisted for the Forward Prize [UK] and winner of the Michael Hartnett Award in 2003), Juniper Street (2006), Spindrift (2009), X (2014), both Poetry Book Society Recommendations, Selected Poems (2016), Four Sides Full (2016, a book-length personal essay), and Double Negative (2019), shortlisted for the 2020 Irish Times Poetry Now Award.