How effectively does Hopkins describe both depression and its antidotes in his poetry?

Sunday 1 March, 1998

Marcus Wischik

I believe that there can be seen a progressive deepening of depression throughout the so-called terrible sonnets. The poems I intend to look will show this, starting with "To seem the Stranger lies my Lot", "I wake and Feel the Fell of Dark", "Carrion Comfort", "No Worst, there is None", and finally "My own Heart let me more have Pity on". The first of the above poems shows the beginning of Hopkins' descent into depression. This is followed by "I wake and Feel …", illustrating Hopkins descending further into depression. The depths to which Hopkins sank are shown in "Carrion Comfort" and in "No Worst, there is None". Following this, "My own Heart …" represents the beginnings of an ascent out of depression, and into a more stable frame of mind. Although the order of the poems are set by the editors of various collections, I think that the above order is the order in which they were written, based on their content.

The symptoms of the early stages of depression, that of paranoia, listlessness and feelings of isolation are recounted in 'To seem the Stranger lies my Lot'. Although in some cases, these feelings tend to be a result of mental imbalance, and have little or no relationship with external reality, in Hopkins' case it would seem that his feelings of isolation are in some senses valid. Following Hopkins' decision to become a Catholic, he came to be rejected by his family. This then would explain his bitterness:

Father and Mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
To seem the Stranger lies my Lot, lines 2-4

This bitterness he feels about the gulf that now exists between himself and his family is expressed in the irony of Christ being both the bringer of peace, and the cause of the "sword and strife". The paranoia common to the early stages of depression is also expressed:

Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven's baffling ban
Bars or hell's spell thwarts.
To seem the Stranger lies my Lot, lines 11-13

The alliteration both of the repeated 'b' and 'ell' sounds show frustration at his being not allowed to write his poetry. He transfers the decision of his Jesuit superiors to "ban" his poetry to being one of God himself. This perceived divine interdict would be particularly hard to bear for Hopkins, being as he was a deeply religious person. This is, I believe, the start of what some people call the "dark night of the soul", in which God seems to be more remote, alien and savage than normal.

The feelings of an inability to work and to concentrate that are common in periods of depression come across more in the structure than in the content of the poem. The repeated use throughout the poem of long vowel sounds mean that the poem takes on a weary, interminable air, very similar in fact to what Hopkins probably thought about his depression. This lack of energy and motivation further develops into insomnia and melancholia as described in "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark". In "I Wake and Feel …", the atmosphere created by Hopkins' description of his insomnia is a very claustrophobic and bleak one:

What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
this night!
I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Lines 2-3

It seems to be the case that, while Hopkins is spiritually suffering a "long dark night", his body too is making him experience long sleepless nights.

The description of dark as having a tangible form, of having a hide that can be felt and experienced is a particularly chilling image. This personification of dark into something more tangible is an artifact of Hopkins' depression, in which the depression that he feels has so dominated his mind that it starts to become projected into a real, physical shape, rather than just an image or an idea. The darkness mentioned, I believe, is both the physical absence of light, as well as the depression that Hopkins feels.

Hopkins, it would seem, sees himself as a ghost of what he once was; he links his current state to that of lost souls:

I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Lines 12-14

He sees his fate as a result of himself, claiming that he is like ghosts that are doomed to wander the earth once dead because of their sins; he sees himself as being destined for the same fate, but when alive rather than dead. Hopkins descended further into depression, finally coming to the realization that there is only one comfort, that of death: "Life death does end and each day dies with sleep". Death, in his view, is however not an option. Although Hopkins feels abandoned by the God for whom he sacrificed everything, he resolves not to give way to despair and suicide. The monosyllabic and stressed structure hammers home the grim and bleak nature of Hopkins' own inscape:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
Man who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep
No worst, there is none, lines 9-12

The above extract has been called the best description of the state of mind of someone who is clinically depressed, describing as it does the jagged, ragged, cold, bleak and inhospitable frame of mind that depressives feel when dealing with those who have not experienced depression. This disdain for those who "hold them cheap…" echoes ideas expressed in "My own Heart…", in which he draws parallels between the blind, and the thirsty in his search of the antidote to depression. I believe that this attitude to those around him would have further contributed to his feelings of isolation, thereby contributing more to his depression. The way that Hopkins perceives himself is an important pointer on what he feels:

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing-
Then lull, then leave off.
No worst, there is none, lines 5-7

The focus of Hopkins' blame in his poetry gradually shifts from himself, and onto God as being the ultimate source of his depression. He starts to describe God as a terrible lion crushing him into the ground, while he attempts to escape:

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 bruisèd bones?
Carrion Comfort, lines 5-7

The repeated rhetorical questions high-light humanity's impotence when faced with God. Hopkins' dark night of the soul seems to be coming to an end, now that God returns to his poetry, although admittedly in a negative form. With the return of Hopkins' connection to God, he realizes that there must be a purpose behind his depression; he asks himself what the purpose is, and eventually comes to the conclusion that it is so
"That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear" - he sees his depression as being a test sent by God, sent to refine and purify him. With this realization, Hopkins begins to recover, and although not immediately visible in "Carrion Comfort", he starts to begin the long climb back to normalcy. Even after coming to this realization, he wonders if the comfort derived from kissing the rod - from rejoicing in the trials God has imposed - bring more pleasure to God or himself.

The poem that contains the real seeds of recovery is "My own Heart let me more have Pity on". In this poem Hopkins expresses his desire to:

not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
My own Heart let me more have Pity on, lines 3-4

The tormented mind refers back to the image he has of his own tormented and twisted inscape, which comes about as a result of his depression. The tone of the poetry has now changed from the dark and depressed tone of the earlier sonnets of desolation, and now starts to return to the style and content of his nature poems. Indeed, the last lines of the poem end on such a hopeful and optimistic note, they almost seem to be part of one of the nature poems:

leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather - as skies
Betweenpie mountains - lights a lovely mile.
My own Heart let me more have Pity on, lines 3-4

I believe that Hopkins' poetry of desolation represents the state of his mind as he becomes gradually more and more depressed, and also as he begins to come out of his depression. His poetry therefore effectively describes depression, and the experience of being depressed.

1,530 words.
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 1998