he speaker in Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Carrion Comfort" struggles intensely with the temptations of despair. For a person to be completely desperate, he must accept that there is no God who could help him overcome his agonies, and thus he entirely loses faith. This is in some ways a simple and calming condition because it allows people to desist in their laborious efforts to find God and alleviate their misery, rather enabling them to passively accept their unhappiness and dispense with life.
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. [lines 1-5]
Hopkins evokes extremely morbid images. He mentions "carrion comfort," which seems to be a grotesque and oxymoronic pairing of words, since there is little immediately comforting or pleasing about dead flesh. Furthermore, he says that he will not "feast" on his desperation, and the linking of feast and carrion creates the disgusting yet telling illusion: to accept "Despair" — a figure almost personified by the capitalization of the word and the manner of addressing it directly — is to consume death. Yet even as the speaker links death and despair and recognizes despair as a sort of end to all things good in life, he still struggles and contradicts himself, modifying his ideas as he speaks. He argues against an inclination to submit to a state of despair, juxtaposing the opposites "I can no more" and "I can." He then expresses optimism and explicitly rejects negativity with the doubly powerful double negative, "not choose not to be."
As the poem progresses, the narrator continues to agonize, questioning the importance of work which, instead of bringing happiness, "lapped strength, stole joy." The last line of the poem condenses many of the sentiments of the poem into a concise, powerful expression of the experience of one who battles against despair; this action essentially means "wrestling with" God.
Is this ultimately an optimistic poem? If so, how is it possible that death — that is, death as a physical, decaying idea rather than as spiritual salvation — is such a pervading force within it?
Does the speaker overcome the urge to despair?
What is the effect in the last sentence of the repeated phrase "my God," in terms of double meanings and poetic flow and emphasis?
Last modified 22 November 2003