The Meaning of a Poem

A broadcast talk in the B.B.C.’s Overseas Service, 14 May 1941; printed in The Listener, 12 June 1941.

I shall start by quoting the poem called “Felix Randal”, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the well-known English poet — he was a Roman Catholic priest — who died in 1893:

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

It is what people call a “difficult” poem — I have a reason for choosing a difficult poem, which I will come back to in a moment — but no doubt the general drift of its meaning is clear enough. Felix Randal is a blacksmith — a farrier. The poet, who is also his priest, has known him in the prime of life as a big powerful man, and then he has seen him dying, worn out by disease and weeping on his bed like a child. That is all there is to it, so far as the “story” of the poem goes.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins

But now to come back to the reason why I deliberately chose such an obscure and one might say mannered poem. Hopkins is what people call a writer’s writer. He writes in a very strange, twisted style — perhaps it is a bad style, really: at any rate, it would be a bad one to imitate — which is not at all easy to understand but which appeals to people who are professionally interested in points of technique. In criticisms of Hopkins, therefore, you will usually find all the emphasis laid on his use of language and his subject-matter very lightly touched on. And in any criticism of poetry, of course, it seems natural to judge primarily by the ear. For in verse the words — the sounds of words, their associations, and the harmonies of sound and association that two or three words together can set up — obviously matter more than they do in prose. Otherwise there would be no reason for writing in metrical form. And with Hopkins, in particular, the strangeness of his language and the astonishing beauty of some of the sound-effects he manages to bring off seem to overshadow everything else.

The best touch, one might say the especial touch, in this poem is due to a verbal coincidence. For the word that pins the whole poem together and gives it finally an air of majesty, a feeling of being tragic instead of merely pathetic, is that final word “sandal” which no doubt only came into Hopkins’s mind because it happened to rhyme with Randal. I ought to perhaps add that the word “sandal” is more impressive to an English reader than it would be to an oriental, who sees sandals every day and perhaps wears them himself. To us a sandal is an exotic thing, chiefly associated with the ancient Greeks and Romans. When Hopkins describes the carthorse’s shoe as a sandal, he suddenly converts the cart-horse into a magnificent mythical beast, something like a heraldic animal. And he reinforces that effect by the splendid rhythm of the last line — “Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal” — which is actually a hexameter, the same metre in which Homer and Vergil wrote. By combination of sound and association he manages to lift an ordinary village death on to the plane of tragedy.

But that tragic effect cannot simply exist in the void, on the strength of a certain combination of syllables. One cannot regard a poem as simply a pattern of words on paper, like a sort of mosaic. This poem is moving because of its sound, its musical qualities, but it is also moving because of an emotional content which could not be there if Hopkins’s philosophy and beliefs were different from what they were. It is the poem, first of all, of a Catholic, and secondly of a man living at a particular moment of time, the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the old English agricultural way of life — the old Saxon village community — was finally passing away. The whole feeling of the poem is Christian. It is about death, and the attitude towards death varies in the great religions of the world. The Christian attitude towards death is not that it is something to be welcomed, or that it is something to be met with stoical indifference, or that it is something to be avoided as long as possible; but that it is something profoundly tragic which has to be gone through with. A Christian, I suppose, if he were offered the chance of everlasting life on this earth would refuse it, but he would still feel that death is profoundly sad. Now this feeling conditions Hopkins’s use of words. If it were not for his special relationship as priest it would not, probably, occur to him to address the dead blacksmith as “child”. And he could not, probably, have evolved that phrase I have quoted, “all thy boisterous years”, if he had not the special Christian vision of the necessity and the sadness of death. But, as I have said, the poem is also conditioned by the fact that Hopkins lived at the latter end of the nineteenth century. He had lived in rural communities when they were still distinctly similar to what they had been in Saxon times, but when they were just beginning to break up under the impact of the railway. Therefore he can see a type like Felix Randal, the small independent village craftsman, in perspective, as one can only see something when it is passing away. He can admire him, for instance, as an earlier writer probably could not have done. And that is why in speaking of his work he can evolve phrases like “the random grim forge” and “powerful amidst peers”.

But one comes back to the technical consideration that a subject of this kind is very much helped by Hopkins’s own peculiar style. English is a mixture of several languages, but mainly Saxon and Norman French, and to this day, in the country districts, there is a class distinction between the two. Many agricultural labourers speak almost pure Saxon. Now, Hopkins’s own language is very Saxon, he tends to string several English words together instead of using a single long Latin one, as most people do when they want to express a complicated thought, and he deliberately derived from the early English poets, the ones who come before Chaucer. In this poem, he even uses several dialect words, “road” for way, and “fettle” for fix. The special power he has of re-creating the atmosphere of an English village would not belong to him if it were not for the purely technical studies he had made, earlier in his life, of the old Saxon poets. It will be seen that the poem is a synthesis — but more than a synthesis, a sort of growing together — of a special vocabulary and a special religious and social outlook. The two fuse together, inseparably, and the whole is greater than the parts.

I have tried to analyse this poem as well as I can in a short period, but nothing I have said can explain, or explain away, the pleasure I take in it. That is finally inexplicable, and it is just because it is inexplicable that detailed criticism is worthwhile. Men of science can study the life-process of a flower, or they can split it up into its component elements, but any scientist will tell you that a flower does not become less wonderful, it becomes more wonderful, if you know all about it.

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Source: CEJL2-22

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