Indiana University Bloomington

The Body Disobedient: Subverted Sacraments in G. M. Hopkins

Sarah Kissel, religious studies, English, political science

Written for ENG-L345: 20th Century British Poetry

Instructor: Prof. Nikki Skillman

Poem Link: poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44396


Suspension. Disruption. Obstruction. Readers peer no further into the scene Hopkins constructs at the onset of his work “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day” than the last two words in the title before experiencing his startled disorientation. The friction immediately introduced by his abrupt midnight awakening sets the tone for the fraught existential outcry to come. “I Wake” is Hopkins buffeting among paradoxes. He uses his contradictory relationship between his interior self and corporeality to express the despair and helplessness one must confront when recognizing God as, simultaneously, the sole source of damnation and of salvation.

Hopkins’ brusque rousing in the midst of night in the first line of the first stanza foreshadows the cosmic themes he means to explore; we as readers are positioned as spectators of a scene that is suspended liminally beyond the common rhythms — and constrains — of time. While this abruptness shatters the midnight stillness it also unbinds him from regimens established by both society and nature in a manner that, importantly, occurs without his consent or even conscious awareness; it is as if he awakes to find that the fact of his awaking has removed him from the historical cycle. In fact, so deeply does he experience this removal that he need not even register the darkness — it is instinctively felt, falling about him. Our first engagement with this poem is a man bewilderedly beyond: he is surprised to be stolen from the familiar, but discovers that perception of the foreign comes oddly naturally. Structurally, this opening line is a transgressor as well: it follows a reliable iambic pentameter meter, but Hopkins interrupts the rhythm of the three following lines with various repetitions, exclamations, and asides that make reading them aloud in iambic pentameter uncomfortable. This structural disruption of meter mirrors the thematic disruption of cyclical time as he startles to consciousness and stumbles through his faltering expressions of desperation in the next three lines. He moans: “What hours, O what black hours we have spent / This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!” The repetition with modification of “what hours” to “what black hours” follows Hopkins as the dark memories of this night’s dreams come to him. In this line, he presents another application of this disjunction experienced throughout the piece: a divide between himself and his heart. In the second and third lines of the first stanza Hopkins addresses his heart as a companion, stating that “we” had spent black hours, and marveling over the sights “you” saw, ways “you” went. By simultaneously personifying and othering his heart from himself Hopkins indicates the intensity of the alienation experienced here, derived not simply from finding oneself in an atemporal margin but also in perceiving and existing entirely separate from his heart, so much so that he can only speculate about the journeys it has taken. The enjambment between lines two and three and the staccato articulation of three strong syllables strung together in “you, heart, saw” and “ways you went” contribute to his inescapable selfinterruption.

Even longer and more arduous, though, is “light’s delay,” the image with which he concludes the first stanza. This aspect, too, transgresses traditional temporality: the daylight does not simply pass, it “delays,” dragging out for longer than is typical or tolerable. Hopkins’ decision to conclude the first stanza in this manner alerts readers that the source of his strife can be found in these sorts of broken boundaries; elements of nature that disobey the cosmic systems meant to govern them and keep history’s wheel spinning deliberately rupture his psychological landscape and produce confused suffering. This emphasis on cosmic time also serves to underscore the absence of agency when it comes to all of this disruption; he emphasizes that such disjointedness has happened to him, rather than because of him.

The opening of the second stanza presents a glimpse of determination, only in his certainty that he has indeed perceived the halting of time — “With witness I speak this.” — but this resolute tone crumbles quickly as Hopkins returns to lamenting the agony of time: “But where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life.” He again employs a combination of enjambment and self-interruption via modification that evoke a man groping for meaning, for respite, in a dark room filled with sharp surprises, encounters with which ache indefinitely. A more explicit source of Hopkins’ multifaceted anxiety appears in the second half of the second stanza with the introduction of relation: “And my lament / Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.” These “dead letters,” in addition to also resisting temporal regulation in their countlessness, indicate a yearning for relationship that goes unrequited, unreturned; he is reaching out for someone — a source of respite or validation, perhaps — and even communicates one-sidedly with cries and letters, but is met only with silence. This sort of malformed relationality is punctuated — or, rather, interrupted — by one of his countless cries, an alas! that ruptures the line’s meter as the pain of forsakenness has ruptured Hopkins’ psyche.

As we move into the third stanza, Hopkins reframes for his readers his relationship with himself as malignant identities: “I am gall, I am heartburn.” He understands his interior self’s identity to be a body malfunctioning, a body in the throes of contamination and rebellion. The corporeality he employs in the second half of “I Wake” is not one divided from itself like the heart that vacates the body to see and go; rather, this putrid body is, in fact, Hopkins’ whole inherent self. At the volta he attempts to mend the self/heart divide he experienced in earlier scenes but his stitches are jagged because the flesh is defiled — he is the body rebelling against itself. Layers of corporeal agency are still present, we are still engaging with a dynamic body, but rather than embodying division, Hopkins embodies upheaval; he is upheaval. This concept of one’s identity as rooted in a perpetual act is given attribution in the rest of the stanza: “God’s most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste: my taste is me; / Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.” Here, Hopkins specifies the source of his conflicted self-loathing, his selfhood derived from perpetual foulness: this bitterness is God’s most deep decree, original sin.

With this invocation, he reveals the root of his fraught self-loathing lies in his dubiousness surrounding his position to criticize the divine: how, Hopkins asks, can one bemoan that which is decreed by God? The stakes of this question are as cosmic as the temporal interruptions that have predicted this moment of inquiry throughout the poem: by elaborating on the tenuous relationship Hopkins sustains between his self and his body, he wonders about human agency to protest God’s position as creator, condemner, and savior, three-in-one. He sees his identity as the disobedient body: carnal, lustful, sinful, perpetually and inescapably so — these are the consequences of the Fall. He is sinning; that gerund is his self — fatalistically endless and inherent to his humanity. But, was not this sinful flesh created by God, in His image? Hopkins theologizes the consequences of a God who engenders sin and then condemns it by furnishing the imagery of a subverted communion: bones built, flesh filled, blood brimmed. These are not the salvific accidentals described in the scripture surrounding the holy sacrament, the vessel of salvation, but rather a monstrous distortion thereof: Hopkins’ bones, flesh, and blood are bitter with the taste of his own inherently sinful humanity; they brim with curse. In this stanza, Hopkins reveals that he wakes to feel the fell of his own transgression, and as he gains consciousness, finds himself cloaked in the darkness of a God almost sure to condemn him for the hideousness He Himself wrought.

Hopkins attempts to mitigate the desperation of this contradiction in the final stanza. Like the previous three stanzas, he opens with a declarative sentence that rapidly degenerates to enjambment and confused cacophony: “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” To assuage his mounting panic, Hopkins attempts to restore some of the natural order that was wrenched from his paradigm as sleep was wrenched from the middle of the night by waxing poetic with an adage. In this context, “sours” is a positive attribute; just as the holy spirit imbues an ordinary human with salvation, so yeast engenders a dull dough with flavor and rise. This stands in stark contrast to the blood brimming with curse called into Hopkins’ body by the same spirit at the end of the last stanza; instead, Hopkins imagines the most nebulous iteration of the trinity as a fulfillment of promise to spare believers from eternal damnation. Just as Hopkins is on the brink of despair, he shifts his lens to include opportunities for hope in God’s professing of the sacraments as a reprieve from sin. This transition from “curse” to “promise” when imagining alternate characterizations of a “deep decree” illustrate that Hopkins understands God to be dynamic and often inscrutable; this is the nature of the divine mystery, unpleasant and terrifying thought it may be. The last stanza bears a change of perspective, if not of tone: “I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.” He does not abandon the language of epidemic, but carries the theme of identity-via-relationality first demonstrated in the heart/body divide through to spare himself the desperation of lost hope — wretched, perpetually sinful, and self-loathing though he may be, Hopkins is not one of the lost, and therefore may sweat with transgression knowing there is the possibility of respite, unlike those who do not know God.

Hopkins’ exploration of relationality and interior division throughout “I Wake” belies an anxiety surrounding the multiplicity — and therefore impenetrable — nature of God. As believers whose salvation hangs in the balance, how are we to acknowledge our inherent sinfulness while still understanding ourselves to be created by God, consecrated by his son, and soured by the holy spirit? Hopkins struggles with God’s position as condemner and redeemer, and his refusal to continue levying accusations toward God by closing the poem with a concession that his suffering exists on a gradient bespeaks his religiosity. Even the rhyme scheme mirrors his simultaneous terror and acceptance: it beings as a contradictory ABAB, ABAB and closes with the plodding, resolved CCD, CCD. By framing the entirety of his query within the form of an Italian sonnet insofar as lines and scheme are concerned, yet internally rupturing those boundaries by employing erratic meter and regular enjambment, Hopkins’ “I Wake” provides the experience of transgressing nature’s cycle that foregrounds his exploration of splintered selfhoods, subverted sacraments, and the fraught contradiction of divine judgement.

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