In the story of Job, Job acknowledges the supreme power of God and his inability to control his own fate; in his grief he curses his own life, sets himself apart from God and defies him. Although Job is ultimately reconciled to his faith, the majority of the book consists of Job’s despondent prayer to God, lamenting his helplessness in the face of God’s almighty and incomprehensible jurisdiction. We find one of Hopkins’ most obvious pursuits of this theme in “Carrion Comfort&rdquo,; which, in addition to being saturated with imagery from Job, echoes precisely the theme of the book:
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.
This poem adopts many images directly from Job, such as lion-limbs (4:10), treading on the helpless (16:14) and, most strikingly, a reference to scattered chaff — a metaphor for God mercilessly blighting one who could never be his equal.
Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy? Will you frighten a windblown leaf and pursue dry chaff? (Job 13:24-25)
In Job 16 we also see an echo of “heaven-handling flung,” God’s violent treatment even of those who are pure of heart:
God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target . . . he bursts upon me again and again; he rushes at me like a warrior. (Job 16:11-14).
Job does not understand why God has passed such terrible judgment on him, a seemingly righteous man; he laments not only God’s judgment but humanity’s powerlessness to understand or question it. Although the poem may not have been based exclusively on Job, the many parallels to this text do indicate that Hopkins was familiar with it, and the Job’s spiritual implications resonate very well with the general tone of Hopkins’ poetry.
Hopkins would appear to endorse a theory of divine pressure, wherein one achieves grace through suffering. Does his use of imagery from Job — perhaps the most famous example of reconciliation from grief — appear to affirm this?
How would the story of Job have been interpreted at the time? Did it enjoy particular currency in other Victorian literature?
Inherent in Job’s lament is an understanding of God’s divine majesty and righteousness; his misery comes largely from having been set in opposition to God and from being unable to understand the reason for his fate. Toward the end of the poem, it is precisely this lack of understanding to which Job is reconciled; while he will never rise to the heights of understanding that will put him on equal footing with God, he makes peace with his own place in the cosmic scheme. How important a role does faith play in the other poems of Hopkins? Does this poem make the implicit claim that understanding is not necessary to — or is, indeed, antithetical to — faith?
Last modified 23 April 2011