I Wake and Feel The Fell of Dark: Summary & Analysis

Also Read


I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.


      The probable date of writing this poem was before May 1885. This sonnet was discovered among Hopkins’s papers after his death. Beyond its autobiographical significance, the great poem has a critical interest. There is a note of despair in the poem but without wholly succumbing to it. It is also one of Hopkins’s ‘sonnets of desolation’. The suffering of Hopkins’s mind and soul in 1885 has been reflected in this poem. The total poem is a description of an experience of frustration and negation, despair and isolation, damned and burnt soul, eternal darkness of rotten and poisoned soul. The sights that the poet sees in his imagination during the sleepless night are dreadful and are likely never to end during his life-time. His appeals for help bring no response from God who seems to be too far away. The state of mind described in the sonnet recalls the following words in his journal: “I had a nightmare that night. I thought something or some one leapt on to 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 prisons”. The agony which Hopkins describes in this poem reminds us of the agony of Job and of King Lear. This is how Job describes his agony: “When I say, my bed shall comfort me, my couch shall ease my complaint, then thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifies me through vision; so that my soul chooseth strangling and death rather than life”.

      Nevertheless, the poem, in the first instance can be seen as expressions both of Hopkins’s crisis and of his efforts to surmount it. Language used in this poem is strained and stressed almost to breaking point in enacting this struggle. Hopkins’s helpless cry and appeal to God for his upliftment has been aptly expressed through the selected words and expressions of the poem. Hopkins himself told Bridges: “When my spirits were so crushed that madness seemed to be making approaches—and nobody was to blame, except myself..”

Thus acute was his pain of heart, deep was his sorrow, penetrating was his appeal to God.


      Line 1—8. The darkness of the night is like the cruel skin of a devouring beast and the poet is in the grip of it. The hours of the nightstand still leaving the poet to suffer the full intensity of his anguish. His heart is his only companion at that time and in the company of his heart he has seen terrible sights in his imagination and he has traveled along horrifying paths. The darkness of the night and the darkness of his soul is still continuing. So the poet is feeling miserable and lies awake during the night. The poet asks his heart as to what terrible rights he has seen this night, and as to what ups and clowns he has experienced. The poet thinks that he will have to undergo the worst horrifying experience if the light is delayed longer. Though God is still his ‘dearest’ but God lives so far away that he fails to receive the poet’s messages. So the poet
laments which consists of countless cries. The poet fears that he is condemned to continue to suffer in this desolate condition for years.

      Lines 9—14. In these lines; the poet identifies himself with two physical conditions which cause great pain to the sufferer. Then the poet attributes his suffering to God’s “most deep decree” or God’s mysterious command according to which he must taste only bitterness, may he must himself become bitter taste. The poet here identifies himself with a bitter taste. The poet described himself as “gall” and “heartburn” previously. The curse which fell upon Adam, as a result of disobedience to God, poet feels, has grown up in and with the poet. The poet thinks that his blood brought the curse to the point of overflowing his body, his bones built that curse in him and his flesh filled that up. The poet compares the selfish spirit of man to yeast: just as the yeast sours the dull dough, so the selfish human spirit sours the poet’s body and mind with its sinfulness. As a result he feels dull and heavy instead of light and airy. The poet compares his condition to the lost damned or cursed souls. Like the cursed souls in hell, the poet is tormented by his own thoughts. But the poet sees a sudden ray of hope and expects that his condition is not as distressing as that of the condition of the damned spirit in hell. He thinks of such souls not as tormented by devils but as merely left to themselves and to serve as a scourge to themselves; and he feels that he too is his own scourge. But the poet is not completely bitter of the damned soul. The responsibility to go to God lies with him. Every soul must make hard and all-out efforts to achieve God. As the heart of the poet has not doomed totally he is sure that he can hope for his betterment and get the mercy of God.


Line 1: I wake: The poet is unable to sleep,

The fell: cruelty; skin of an animal. As a noun, it means the “fur” or “skin” of a beast; as an objective it means “cruel”.
The word also stands for the fell of a mountain, a moorland waste on which the poet has wandered, tom with self-disgust or the miseries of the fell — terrible, unsparing night when a man is feverish with worry.

Line 2: We: The poet treats his heart as a companion the only one he has got in his distressed state.

Line 3: Ways: ups and downs.

Line 4: And more must, in yet longer light’s delay: The poet will see more such sights of despair. The night will yet continue, and the poet will have yet more such terrible experiences. By “night” means a time of spiritual desolation as well as the time of night.

Line 5: With witness I speak this: Everything can be proved by the poet. The poet can prove the truth of his statement by calling to witness who also have the similar experience of spiritual desolation. The poet is not the only person subjected to the mental agony of these “black hours”, many people have got the similar experience.

Line 6: I mean years, mean life: The poet is condemned to suffer spiritual darkness for the whole of his life.

Lines 6-8: And my lament....alas! away: The poet feels that a vast gulf separates him from God and that is the reason for his torment which seems not to have any end. The poet laments over his sad plight which takes the form of countless appeals to God for help. But his appeals remain unanswered. Poet’s appeal do not reach God as He lives so far away.

Line 9: I want gall, I am heartburn: The word ‘gall’ here stands for bitterness, for a painful swelling. “Heartbum” is a burning sensation which is felt at the lower region of the chest. The poet describes his wretchedness in term of physical diseases.

God’s most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste: It is God’s decree that the poet must taste bitterness of the spiritual darkness. The poet identifies himself with what is afflicting him; that is to say the poet is the sinner and God can have no mercy on him.

Line 11: Bone built in me.....the curse: The curse here refers to the curse of Adam, which he brought upon himself by his disobedience to God, by his own sinfulness. The poet is a victim of that curse. That curse was built in him by his bones, filled up with flesh, and brimmed with blood. It may be said that every fiber and every bit of his being has contributed to the growing dimension of the curse so that it has now assumed formidable proportions and he is feeling completely overwhelmed by it.

Line 12: Selfyeast of spirit: Poet has compared the spirit of selfishness in man to yeast. Yeast causes fermentation.

Line 13: The lost are like this: The cursed souls which ultimately makes them sinful and leads them to the hell. In hell the damned souls are in a condition similar to that of the poet.

Scourge: instrument of torture.

Line 13: and their scourge to be/As I am mine, their sweating selves: In this expression Hopkins’s view is that the damned soul are tormented not by devils, but by themselves, that is by their memories of earthly misdeeds and by their intense and endless remorse. The poet’s agony arises from within himself from his own inner being, not from any external source.

Line 14: But worse: The condition of the damned soul in Hell is worse than that of the poet. The poet has the realization that he is still alive and he can make amends for his sins. So the poet is better placed as compared to the damned souls in Hell; because the damned souls are beyond redemption and are eternally “lost”.


      The poet, in the sonnet I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, wakes, gets the feel of darkness—i.e. spiritual darkness or despair and not light. The word “fell” has two meanings: firstly it is a noun from “fall” anti secondly it refers to cruelty of despair or spiritual darkness. In the next line “we” stands for the poet himself and his soul. Night being symbolic of spiritual darkness. His heart is in despair. He asks his heart what terrible sight he has seen? The heart went through the ways which were horrifying.

      The poet is all poison; he is suffering from spiritual heartburn; he is spiritually unhealthy. Poet’s soul is sinful; everything seems accursed and satanic in him. In him lives the sin, and through his own sin he makes himself further miserable. He knows that the damned souls are still in a worst plight and they themselves are their own punishment. Through a very common domestic simile Hopkins says damned souls are like this. But the poet is not completely bitter like the damned soul. The responsibility to go to God lies with him. Every soul must make hard to achieve Christ.

      The style of the poem has been enriched by the use of alliteration—an important ingredient of Hopkins’s poetic style. For example, we have: “feel the fell”, “of dark, not day”; “longer light’s delay”; “cries countless”, “deep decree”. The use of alliteration in the following line is remarkable: “....built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse”. Commenting upon the style of these sonnet, K.E. Smith writes: “Here, as in The Wreck of the Deutschland, trenchant diction and imagery couple with a forceful, masculine verse movement to make mental events almost physically present. As a result, tense spiritual states are described with a palpability and definiteness of outline rare in English poetry since the time of Donne and Herbert”. And to illustrate his observation, the critic quotes the sestet of this particular sonnet and adds: “Not least impressive in these powerful lines are the two last, simple words where the poet, having just compared himself with the damned, wrenches himself back from the comparison, reminding himself that their eternal torment must be worse than his pure temporal one. For the living like himself, there is always at least the chance of redemption but for the dead, who have completed their actions, there can be no second chance”.

      Hopkins’s abundant use of figurative language is very impressive. Thus unable to sleep, he feels, “the fell of dark”, the “fell” here conveying both the thickness of the dark and its cruelty. His countless cries are compared to “dead letters”, that is, letters which never reach their destination, God. Then he expresses his plight by saying: “I am gall, I am heartburn”. This imagery of acute physical malaise and discomfort is symbolic of his inner state of mind; his whole being— body and mind—is sick and enervated. The imagery of the last six lines is particularly powerful. It clearly conveys forcibly the poet’s inner, psychological state but not only that doubt also draws some of its effect from its literal truth. Consequent discomfort, fatigue and bodily weakness often drained away the energy Hopkins needed to pull himself out of his despondency.

Previous Post Next Post