In his Terrible Sonnets, Hopkins’s shows off his wide-ranging use of imagery. We know that he wrestled with doubt, particularly during his final years which he spent teaching in University College Dublin. In his attempts to express clearly his meaning it can be said he transformed almost every known literary device used by poets: dramatic opening lines, imagery, irony, ambiguity, puns. He also invented a few of his own: sprung rhythm, compound adjectives, and his use of foreign, colloquial and archaic words. The best we can say about his sonnets is that they demonstrate his almost complete disregard for sonnet conventions!
All of his poems, and especially the Terrible Sonnets, were directly inspired by his experiences as a Jesuit priest, and his sonnets are attempts to elaborate his central themes: the value of sacrifice, the transience of mortal beauty, the permanence of evil in an unchristian world and the deep spiritual anguish and desolation which characterises two sonnets in particular: ‘No Worst, there is None’ and ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’. Critics would have us believe that these ‘terrible sonnets’ plumb the depths of despair but yet I believe that despite his battles with desolation and near despair, his sonnets always contain signs of hope, no matter how slender. After all, despair, in his Catholic catechism was one of the Seven Deadly Sins and I believe that these often harrowing sonnets are dramatisations of the darkness and spiritual anguish which comes with ‘the dark night of the soul’ often mentioned in Ignatian and John of the Cross spirituality.
Therefore, it is my view that while the Terrible Sonnets sometimes plumb the depths of despair they never actually reach rock bottom and each sonnet ends on the slightest sliver of hope. We must remember again that Fr. Hopkins is a priest, not only that but he is a Jesuit priest, one of Christ’s Storm Troopers, crack SAS commandoes, and so despair is not an option!
In his sonnet ‘No Worst, there is None’, Hopkins outlines the intensity of his pain in the opening quatrain and then proceeds to seek significant comfort, but in vain. This sonnet is particularly interesting in that many of its images echo through earlier poems where the mood was less despondent. The poet’s sense of despair is emphasised in quatrain two in an unusual but particularly poignant image of his cries heaving ‘herds-long’, gathering at the gate of heaven perhaps but not being admitted or even acknowledged. Where is the comfort that Hopkins himself had administered to Felix Randal? The poet then refers to an ‘age-old anvil’, a sounding board which winces and rings out his pain. This very original image of the anvil reminds us again of Felix and his work in the forge, except on this occasion the poet is the raw material that Christ is beating into shape. In the sestet, the poet refers to a natural landscape, the mountains. In earlier poems, ‘wilderness’ filled him with joy. Here, however, the steep cliffs, a nightmarish metaphor, represent the spiritual torment and physical suffering that the poet has had to endure, day in, day out. The only comfort is the relief of sleep. However, as the poem comes to an end, there is slender hope because while the lost souls are as he is, they are worse off because they are dead and at least he is still alive and has time before he dies to repent and live a better life. This in turn makes him realise that he is not so badly off after all. The title also, believe it or not, contains a tiny nugget of reassurance: here, he is not saying that this is the worst, but that there IS no worst – as we all know from sometimes bitter experience, things can always get worse!
In ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’ the poet awakens to the oppressive darkness of night and yearns for the respite of daylight. The dark night is itself symbolic of dark periods in the poet’s life when hope of spiritual ecstasy may have seemed very distant. So where then is our sliver of hope here in this sonnet? Well, there are a number of sightings! For example, when he says, ‘Comforter, where, where is your comforting?’, this is merely echoing Christ’s words on the cross. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ and while it may appear at times in his imagery that Hopkins is literally hanging by his fingernails over the pit and the abyss, yet he does not despair.
In The Terrible Sonnets, he constantly uses numerous tricks to gain our attention and his opening lines are often very dramatic and effective:
‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’
‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.’
The Terrible Sonnets, in particular, specialise in short, hurried, phrases and in the repetition of certain thematic words: ‘Pitched past pitch of grief’; ‘More pangs will, schooled at forepangs’; ‘Let me be fell’; ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’; ‘O the mind, mind has mountains’; ‘What hours, O what black hours’; ‘Fall, gall themselves, and gash’; ‘I am gall’.
His schooling and studies in theology have convinced him that God exists, he is always certain of that, so why then has He forsaken him and why does he appear to be so far away, apparently unresponsive and uncaring to a man whose letters are ‘dead’? Hopkins’s increasingly sinister images explore the bounds of human suffering and despair. In the sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’, for example, the conspicuous absence of daylight reminds us how far the poet has come from the glorious sunshine and colour in ‘Spring’, ‘God’s Grandeur’ or ‘The Windhover’. There is little evidence of ‘couple-colour’ in ‘the black hours’ Hopkins has spent with his torment, suffering ‘yet longer light’s delay’. The delay of light represents, of course, the delay of hope – all is now ‘gall’ and ‘heartburn’. Quite remarkably, taste is evoked as a description of the poet’s state. He becomes bitterness itself, borne out of his despair. Yet, perhaps this is God’s will that he suffer the ‘curse’ with which his ‘bones’ and ‘flesh’ must contend. But the poet’s tormented spirit is souring dough, which needs to be infused with spiritual ecstasy.
To conclude, in Hopkins’s poetry, therefore, the range of imagery is certainly quite extensive, his originality unquestioned. Imagery ignites the poet’s celebration and it ignites his desolation. In the darkness, there is no flash of colour, of light, no ’dapple-dawn-drawn’ inspiration to lift his thoughts, no sparks, no flashes, no gold. In 1889, only weeks before his death, Hopkins wrote another sonnet, often linked with the Terrible Sonnets, ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’. This sonnet is a hurt protest by the good and devout priest that God allows the wicked to prosper while Hopkins, who has devoted his whole life to the service of God in the slums of cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow and Dublin, suffers the tortures of the damned. In the poem images of fertility in nature abound: building, breeding, waking, growing. The poet, however, is depicted in the sterile image of a ‘eunuch’. Nonetheless, the concluding appeal expressed again through a vivid and most appropriate image, is that as Spring renews nature, so God may send his spiritual ‘roots rain’: surely if he can still pray he is not in despair. Where there is prayer, there is hope!