Carrion Comfort: by G. M. Hopkins - Summary & Analysis

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Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, 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 bruisèd 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, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.


      The poem Carrion Comfort was completed in August 1885. Hopkins, at very moment, was facing some spiritual disturbance which had reached to its peak, which enabled him to start again with his writing after the break of two years. The trouble in his soul is quite obvious in his work also and he wrote it in his own words as: “I had a nightmare that night. I thought something or someone leaped on me and held me quite fast: this I think woke me, so that after this I shall have had the use of reason.....It made me think that this was how the souls in hell would be imprisoned in their bodies as in prisons.”


      Lines 1-4: The poet refuses to accept carrion as the food for him as he thinks it a food of bird of prey, which is quite disgusting and humiliating too, in the sense he wants to leave the ‘Despair’ for good. He knows that despair can give him the comfort and peace but for a short term and thereafter only a sense of self-degradation will haunt him all the time. So, the poet rejects the temptations of flesh and elevates himself from the darkness of soul, which is enlightened by the Christ himself.

      Lines 5-8: When the poet turned his back from the Despair, he found the Christ just in front of him, which seems to him a horrifying monster or lion who is watching his bones with terrifying eyes which is giving him a shock. He asks Christ why making such a horrible appearance of Him, is hovering over him. Sometimes, the Christ appears in a form of whirlwind which is confusing him about the real motif of God changing his form again and again. The wind is so powerful and it is almost impossible for him to escape from its terrible blows.

      Lines 9-14: The poet’s mind wavers. At one time he thinks that it is better to escape from such terrible wrath, then again in his hesitation, he realizes that even in His wrathful form God commands sinners. This terrible gust of wind will only efface the poet's sin and his soul will be cleansed. This apprehension calms down the poet and he surrenders to God. The act only fills him with celestial joy. But again his mind falters. His mind baffles to find out who is actually responsible for bringing about such heavenly joy - is it his undaunting spirit that faces God’s wrath or God’s terrible blows. However, at the end the total enlightenment takes place followed by the flaccid state of mind. The poet introspects that this tumultuous encounter with God only brings him closer to his Almighty. An overwhelming emotion makes him possessive about God.


      Line 1: Not, I’ll not carrion comfort Despair: Carrion is decayed flesh. The poet says that he will not feed on a Carrion like a bird of prey. He will also not take comfort from despair. Despair, in this expression, is personified and regarded as a source of comfort which is a feeding on spiritual death. Despair provides comfort which feeds on spiritual death in other words, the man who seeks comfort in despair is one who gives up all hope of spiritual comfort. It also implies that one who seeks comfort in despair takes to sensual pleasure, or pleasures of flesh. The poet rejects the temptations of the flesh, or sensual pleasures.

      Line 2: Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man: The word not is used three times in the same line for emphasis. The poet is determined not to seek comfort in despair. “Feast on”—“feed upon” the bones and veins, or the fibers of spiritual being in him. These strings of manhood may become loose in him but he will not untwist or unbind these fibers which are the source of manliness.

      Line 3: I can no more: The words of despair will not be uttered by the poet; he will never cry that he is unable any longer to do anything.

I can: Poet’s optimistic attitude has been expressed in this expression.

Line 4: Can something: The poet here expresses hope that he can do something.

Wish day come: The poet can still feel the desire for the day to come.

not choose not to be: he can choose to exist or to survive.

Line 5: O thou terrible: Christ is called terrible because he does not spare the sinners.

Why wouldst thou rude on me: The poet asks the reason of Christ’s oppression.

Line 6: Thy wring world right foot: Wring means to crush or to twist forcibly. Christ’s right foot treads upon the world or tramples the sinners underfoot. The poet wants to know why he is being tortured by God. The poet is being tortured very rudely, and the poet is unable to realize the wrath of God.

Lay a lion limb against me: here is a comparison between God and lion; God is like a lion terrifying the poet, the sinner. The comparison is Biblical.

Scan: look closely.

Line 7: With darksome.....bruised bones: Christ is looking at the poet with a devouring eyes; the bones of the poet is already bruised; it means the poet has been started to be eaten up internally.

And fan: to toss violently against the wind.

Line 8: In turns of tempest: The poet has compared with a heap of grain and God is like a whirlwind, a winnowing wind blowing against him.

Me frantic to avoid thee and flee: The poet is frightened of Christ’s wrath and he is also anxious to get away from the buffetings he is getting from Christ’s whirlwind; he wants to escape God’s wrath.

Line 9: why? This is a question of Hopkins which haunts him terribly.

That my chaff might fly....sheer and clear: The poet could realize the cause of God’s wrath, but His real motive is to mend the poet as due to a whirlwind, the chaff is taken away from that place and only grain is left out in pure form. Indirectly, it suggests us that the sufferings given by God are only to make amends.

Line 10: Nay: Not only this but something more is expecting.

In all that....kissed the rod: The poet is much disturbed even then he is aware of the God’s Existence and the ‘rod’ is there to only check him when he is bewildered. So, the poet kissed the rod what signified his complete surrender to Almighty.

Line 11: Hand rather: When the poet kissed the rod, it seemed to him as if he had kissed the hand of God instead.

Lapped strength.....laugh cheer: just after kissing the rod (which seemed to him God’s hand), an ecstasy entered his heart, gives him a supernatural strength and tolerance.

Line 12: Cheer whom though: The poet questions himself whether he should extol God or the reward should be gone to him.

The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod: The poet says that whether he should praise God, who is so powerful to govern the heaven and has the power to flung him away from that very place and the poet found himself under His feet.

Line 13: Me? or me that fought him? O which one?: Then again poet is confused whether he should cheer himself for having such a power to fight with Him. Again and again, this question is haunting him.

Is it each one? He comes to the point that perhaps he should applaud both himself and God. He considers both as the deserving persons to be praised and cheered up.

Line 13-14: That night, that God: The previous period comes back to the poet’s mind when he was unaware of the God’s polite and kind heart in guise of His severe punishment. He recalls how he fought with him and how the time of darkness is over and he has elevated himself to see the God’s real appearance.


      Carrion Comfort is Hopkins’s one of the ‘terrible sonnets’. The sonnet echoes Hopkins’ depression and melancholy, a psychological disturbance that he often used to experience. This fit of depression often bordered on lunacy that the poet himself confessed to his friend Robert Bridges. His other five sonnets written in the same period also expose this particular mental agony of the poet. Carrion Comfort is first among them. For their acute note of sadness these poems are categorized by the critics as ‘terrible sonnets’ the “sonnets’ of desolation”.

      Carrion Comfort is first of ‘terrible sonnets’. In his own words Hopkins described this sonnet as—“If ever anything was written in blood, one of these was.”

      Spiritual dejection is the underlying tone of the sonnet. Poet’s mind is traumatized by a sense of spiritual desolation that goes beyond the point of tolerance. His weak health aggravates the situation. A mental void thus created torments him resulting into spiritual barrenness. However, in the latter half of the sonnet, we see the upliftment of the poet’s soul. His association with God remains intact, his faith grows stronger.

      In the very first line of the sonnet, we find how vehemently the pact rejects the imminent ‘Despair’ that seems to engulf him. He determinedly replaces his moroseness with hope. But even at this point, he faces a dilemma. The severity of God’s wrath baffles him. A series of questions rise in his mind: Why God is dreadful? Why he is meted out with His ruthless treatment? Why Christ tramples him, crushing him under his (Christ's) feet? In his terrible form, Christ appears like a lion. Christ’s intimidating look scans the poet’s wounds. The poet’s encounter with Christ becomes more devastating when Christ’s tempestuous blows start to hit him hard. However, this dilemma and bafflement in face of God’s ruthlessness do not settle in him for a long time and soon an enlightenment dawns upon him. The poet infers God’s true intention in His unremitted cruel act. The poet understands its spiritual significance. He hails it as a mechanism for spiritual refinement. In his terrible form God actually facilitates the cleansing process of impurities of the spirit, thereby causing its upliftment. The apprehension pacifies poet and he yields to God’s chastening wrath and kisses His rod whose blows are meant for his atonement. Through this submission, he gets back his peace of mind and ultimately unites with his God. At the end combativeness of the poet gives way to his total surrender to God.

      Development of Thought: We see in this poem a steady development of thought. The poet overcomes despair by warding it off resolutely. His optimism takes over pessimism after stressful negation of cynic ‘Despair’. His affirmation ‘I can’ is preceded by three ‘not’ that he uses in the first two lines of the sonnet. First four lines, the poet devotes to assert his supreme being over prevailing ‘Despair’. In the next four lines, the poet addresses God or Christ whose horrifying image only torments him, and he wishes to evade him that will actuate him being drifted away from God instead of bringing him near God. In the last six lines or sestet, God’s horrifying image emerges in new light and the poet discovers divine blessing beneath His ruthlessness. God’s purpose is to purify the falling soul. Thus, divine wrath acquires a new meaning. This idea of cleansing effect or the Purgation of soul by means of divine punishment overcomes poet’s rebelliousness and a profound mental peace sets in. So, the poem, far from being a plaintive cry of despair resulting into a combat with God, turns into an extolment of God after an ultimate union with Him.

      The Style of the Sonnet: There is an abundant use of metaphors. The comfort issuing from ‘Despair’ is termed as ‘carrion, comfort’. The last strands of man” symbolizes a man’s essential physical and spiritual constituents. The poet calls them ‘last’ since the mental and physical trauma that he undergoes seems to bring him to the last point of endurance which he ultimately overcomes. ‘Chaff stands for the sins he committed and the ‘grain’ is the pure, refined soul that is obtained by atonement of soul initiated by divine wrath. The word toil is used to refer to his mental agony that the poet experiences while combating with God and ‘coil’ insinuates the withdrawal of his combative spirit. The last line of the sonnet is remarkable. The phrase ‘my god!’ has the overtone of his exhaustive encounter with God from which engenders the profound mental peace.

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