In “A Soliloquy of one of the Spies left in the Wilderness” Hopkins has a disenchanted Israelite contrast the distasteful water produced by Moses in the desert with the abundance and false promise of the Nile. The spy expresses his loathing for Moses, manna, and the harsh desert wandering and paints an idyllic image of life in rich, irrigated Egypt, without “thirst or dearth.”
Sicken'd and thicken'd by the glare of sand
Who would drink water from a stony rock?
. . . Wasteful wide huge-girthed Nile
Unbakes my pores, and streams, and makes all fresh.
I gather points of lote-flower from an isle
Of leaves of greenest flesh.
Are you sandblind? slabs of water many a mile
Blaze on him all this while.
In beds, in gardens, in thick plots I stand,
Handle the fig, suck the full-sapp'd vine-shoot.
From easy runnels the rich-pieced land
I water with my foot.
Must you be gorged with proof? Did ever sand
So trickle from your hand?
Yet the poem ends with the spy’s faltering, still allied with the Nile but aware that something is wrong.
Sure, this is Nile: I sicken, I know not why, And faint as though to die.
There is more to the spy’s musings than exasperation with Moses and regret for the journey. The water Moses produces is symbolic of salvation; by preferring the deceptive luxury of the Egyptian Nile, the spy damns himself. Spiritually, he sickens. He believes he has found the Nile, the life-saving option in his opinion, but since it is not Moses’s divinely-produced spring he gains nothing by it and is baffled at this.
Hopkins illustrates the difficulties of following God by giving Egypt such a bountiful description. The image would particularly appeal to a man in the desert. He describes not just water and wells, but “juicy soil,” the crushing of grapes, green leaves, “full-sapp’d vine[s],” and other things that would require water to flourish or indirectly bring liquid to mind, as with the grapes and the sap.
1. Is the spy hallucinating by the end of the poem, or has he actually returned to Egypt? Does it matter for Hopkins’ message?
2. How might this mirror Hopkins’ own spiritual journey and difficulties in finding and following Catholicism?
3. What purposes do the extended descriptions of Egypt and the contrast between it and the desert serve?
4. Does this exile from a land of gardens intentionally echo Genesis and the Garden of Eden? Why would Hopkins use that, and what complications would it add to the poem’s deeper meaning?
Last modified 21 April 2011