Told from the perspective of an Israelite tribal leader dispatched to survey Canaan, Gerard Manley Hokins’s “A Soliloquy of One of the Spies in the Wilderness” expresses a faltering spirit in the face of adversity. The speaker is one of the ten spies from the Book of Numbers who, convinced Canaan was an unrealistic military objective, reported it populated by fearsome giants (Num 13.33). This false report demoralized the Israelites and incited a fresh round of the “murmurings” against Moses, Aaron, and God that had plagued Israelite morale since their departure from Egypt. The report also had the effect of angering God, who barred the Israelites from entering the Promised Land for forty years. In his poem, Hopkins imagines the spy exhausted by the desert and filled with a false nostalgia for servitude in Egypt.

Sicken'd and thicken'd by the glare of sand
Who would drink water from a stony rock?
Are all the manna-bushes in the land
     A shelter for this flock?
Behold at Elim wells on every hand
     And seventy palms there stand.

The reference to the water from the rock is a type of the crucifixion that was common in the Victorian era. The passage is therefore an implicit rejection of Christianity in difficult circumstances. It is a failed test of faith, and can be read as an expression of Hopkins’s personal struggle with Catholicism.

Questions

1. The spies who gave false reports in the Book of Numbers died of plague in the wilderness and their tribes became lost outside the Promised Land. One can see a parallel to Hopkins’s personal life. After a conversion to Catholicism and a move to Ireland he found himself cut off English society. The poet is placed in the position of a member of a lost tribe, wandering outside the Promised Land. Are there their greater societal metaphors at work in this poem, or is Hopkins focusing solely on his personal removes?

2. The poem opens with a call to arms by Moses to capture the Canaan. “Come up, Arise and slay.” It closes with the speaker eschewing this call.

Go then: I am contented here to He.
Take Canaan with your sword and with your bow.

If the poem is an expression of Hopkins’s relationship with faith, then that relationship is combative. Faith demands continuous struggle. However, the speaker in the poem dismisses Moses’s commands and lies down “as though to die.” (He is presumably stricken with the plague that God sent to punish the ten duplicitous spies in Numbers 14.37.) What is Hopkins saying about someone, possibly himself, who gives up the struggle to lie down and die? This is a moment of profound doubt, but in the Christian tradition Christ expresses a moment of doubt on the Cross (Matt 27.46) as does the Apostle Thomas after hearing that Jesus has returned (John 20.25). Does this expression of doubt take Hopkins away from his faith or bring him closer to Catholic tradition? This question can be considered from another perspective. Considering Hopkins’s interested in Genesis 3:15, what is Hopkins saying about a situation where extreme pressure has resulted in capitulation?

3. The spy yearns for the comfort of Egypt, but the terms he uses to describe Egypt contain clear negative implications. He suggests turning to “a more grateful god,” presumably an Egyptian god. Yet the Egyptian gods could not prevent the ten plagues nor the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. He recommends forgetting the “tale of bricks” and returning to Egypt to collect “glistery straw.” Yet Pharaoh’s decision to cease distributing straw while continuing the demand a “tale of bricks” (Exodus 5) sparked the exodus in the first place. Finally, it is difficult to see the spy’s desire to return to a “yoke” and “burden” in Egypt as unironic.

Hopkins employs the spy’s testimony with irony — his spy is experiencing a convenient revisionist history. A double bind is presented here. The spy’s current situation is clearly miserable. However, from his language, the reader perceives that a return to Egypt is also unacceptable.

If the poem is an expression of Hopkins’s internal struggle with faith, does the double bind suggest that continuation on the path of faith offers hope for the future, or does it suggest that all situations are equally miserable? What is the message when all possible options are unbearable?

4. The manna mentioned in the poem appears fist appears in the book of Exodus. God provided manna from heaven to the Israelites to prevent them from starving in the wilderness. “It was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). In the Catholic tradition, communion wafers are said to be the body of Christ. Should we consider manna to be a type of Christ or of communion?

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Last modified 23 April 2011