Lenten remorse: Hopkins's dark night of the soul

By Mary Karr
Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Jewish boyfriend jokes that even in terms of atonement, we Catholics pay retail. His tribe handles it in one day, while our tradition allots the whole season of Lent.

During my own dark nights of the soul, I often find comfort in the "terrible sonnets" of poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, for they show the depths of spiritual agony even the faithful endure. Hopkins's crippling depression was countered by faith that each particular object in creation had a luminous particularity or "thisness" -- an inward landscape he called "inscape" -- the essence of the thing -- shaped by a divine force he called "instress." Letting instress thrust you into an inscape is one way to apprehend Christ, as in these lines from "God's Grandeur":

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. . . .

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

This physicality informs the dark sonnets both musically and in carnal detail. Hopkins called his dense metric system "sprung rhythm," even using accent marks to instruct the reader where to bear down.

In "Carrion Comfort," Hopkins refuses to feast on the rotten meat of melancholy, though he can barely long for day and stave off suicide. Hopkins's syntax is so mangled, the lines so packed with heavy plodding accents and stilted comma stops, that he speaks as if through a chokehold. Yet somehow the depth of his suffering proves the vigor of his faith.


Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee,

Not untwist--slack they may be--these last strands of man

In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me

Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan

With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,

O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.

Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,

Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.

Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod

Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that


Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

(These Gerard Manley Hopkins poems can be found in "The Norton Anthology of English Literature," Sixth Edition, Volume 2. Norton. Copyright 1993 by W.W. Norton & Company.)

Mary Karr is a poet and the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

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