n Sonnet 65, "No Worst, there is none," Hopkins plays on the idiomatic phrase of falling into despair by using hyperbolic language to illustrate a physical picture of emotional descent. The poem literally creates a physical or exterior space for something which is internal, and essentially Hopkins begins to reverse the Swinburnian landscape in which the mind projects its own preoccupations and emotions onto the external world. Whereas Swinburne endows the natural world with human sentiment and personal struggle, Hopkins uses the external world or landscape as a metaphor for the mind. In sonnet 65, Hopkins introduces a variety of images to depict despair as a downward spiral, and by the end of the poem, the speaker's tortured consciousness becomes "the steep" and "the deep," "the whirlwind" or the fall from a cliff into nothingness. The thematic structure of the poem itself mirrors the speaker's descent in that although the falling into despair seems wretched enough, by the end of the poem we see that what is perhaps most horrifying about grief is not simply its intensity but its marked transience. In a sense, Hopkins is thus illustrating a conception of time which is both like that of Tennyson's In Memoriam and Browning's "Two in the Compagna" but is also akin to Swinburne's notions of time as a spiral ("Evening on the Broads" [text] and "By the North Sea" [text]). Here, Hopkins suggests that grief seems to overlap upon itself; it is a fury which is learned but becomes wilder with time, until we find ourselves subject to a "whirlwind," or a chaotic cycle between despair and lull, sleep and waking, life and death:
No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries have, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
erring! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! Creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Hopkins begins to hint at a relationship between grief and time in the first lines. In being thrown past the very downward plunge, or the very blackness of grief (for pitch here seems to act as a double entendre), a more painful grief surfaces. However, Hopkins suggests in line 2 that it is grief which spawns grief; or, in essence, we learn to grieve from past grief, and in doing so our despair only becomes intensified, and it is thus more and more difficult for the physical body to "wring" or squeeze out its mental pain. Line 1 thus illustrates the first image of a fall, in the notion of being "pitched" out over "the pitch." The second literal fall in the poem then occurs in line 6, when the speaker compares his cries to that of the blacksmith's hammer falling down on the anvil. Hopkins almost suggests then in lines 7-8 that this falling is more painful due to its quickness. Here, Fury is allegorized, and Hopkins suggests that despite the natural associations that we have with this emotion, we strive to hang on to our grief and our rage even though they are ephemeral. Fury, Hopkins says, must itself fall, and, therefore, must be brief. Nevertheless, in personifying Fury and in infusing it with a voice, Hopkins is able to allude to a tension between the speaker's grief and the natural laws of grief. By not only creating an enjambment between lines 7 and 8, but by also splitting the word "lingering" itself, Hopkins suggests through poetic technique that the speaker is desperately (and hopelessly) trying to cling to his own fury and despair. The next six lines then allude to the mind as a mountainous landscape, and the speaker states that some men who have not hung from the cliffs of the mind do not appreciate such ephemeral moments of fury and despair. Nevertheless those of us who hang, states the speaker, do not hang for long, and thus the speaker alludes to the fourth actual fall in the poem, in which the literal or metaphorical descent into death becomes our greatest and final, human cry of despair.
In lines 13 and 14, however, the speaker seems to move slightly away from the metaphor of a "fall" and suggests patterns of spirals or cycles in life. In a sense, the supposed plunge of life into death, day into night, and wake into sleep (line 14) all appear to be standard allusions to cycles rather than linear descents. It is interesting also that Hopkins ends rather with the microcosmic image of a day dying with sleep rather than life dying with death. How do we reconcile ourselves with these two structural illustrations of time, and what do you think Hopkins is suggesting about the relationship between the cycle and the fall?
If Hopkins is in any way alluding to the image of the cycle, it is certainly not in the positive light of regeneration. But rather, at the end of the poem, he seems to stress the chaotic motion of the whirlwind. Is this comparison simply a means of relating the chaos and fury of the mind to moving cycles of chaos in the external world, or does Hopkins have other reasons for introducing this very structurally and biblically charged image? (Think about the function of the whirlwind, for example, in the book of Job). Also, how many ways can we unpack the syntax of lines 12-13, "Here! Creep, / Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind," and are we supposed to take the words "creep" and "wretch" as nouns or verbs? Whereas other Victorian poets such as Browning and Tennyson have alluded to the torturesome cycles and transience of time (see above), they have often illustrated this sensation through the loss of a positive experience or a loved one. Nevertheless, Hopkins approaches this theme through the loss of something negative, that is the terrible loss of despair. What are we to make of this poetic transition, and how is Hopkins playing with the theme of loss? Is he necessarily merely suggesting that despair generates loss rather than loss generates despair, or does he indicate that the two overlap upon one another?
In summary, is Sonnet 65 of the "terrible sonnets" merely a fall, or does Hopkins lend the poem to more Swinburnian notions of consciousness, emotion, time, and space? And finally, how do the usages of line breaks and dashes in the poem help to key us into the poem's overall thematic structure?
Last modified 23 November 2003
Last modified 23 November 2003