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.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carrion Comfort
Reflection – Time for another sonnet from my favorite poet. One of Catherine Doherty’s favorite books was The Struggle With God, by the Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov. This poem by Hopkins really is one of the best descriptions of that struggle and what it does to and in us.
As I have said before on this blog, to ‘explain’ a poem is a crime against literature; the meaning of the poem is found in the reading of it, not in reading about it. This one is actually one of Hopkins’ clearer works. I have always loved the strong beginning negation: NOT!
I will NOT despair; I will NOT give up; I will NOT say ‘no more’. There is a fierce, fighting spirit here that is so essential to our human thriving. We are indeed in a battle, whether it is with the world, ourselves, the devil, or in some weird way God Himself, and the first law of the battle is (quoting Galaxy Quest) ‘Never give up! Never surrender!’
And yet Hopkins, and we with him, find ourselves in this strange predicament. In the choice to not despair, to not just pack it in, take our marbles and go home, in the choice to simply carry on with whatever the difficult, challenging situation, interior or exterior battle is that we find ourselves in, we find ourselves struggling not merely with flesh and blood, with human perfidy or our own weaknesses.
We find, as we struggle and sweat in the trenches of life, that we are locked in a wrestler’s embrace with the One who made the universe, the very God who made my arms and legs and muscle and sinew, now entering the arena to engage in single combat with me. This is the Jacob moment of our lives, the Job moment—that the mysterious twisting and turning of life and its fortunes has delivered us into the arms of God, not simply and sweetly for a loving embrace, but in struggle and strife.
The wrestler God—this is the subject of this poem. And Hopkins takes us further yet, as every good sonnet does in its second stanza. In this wrestling match of the soul and God, he finds himself now in the third position, that of the cheering crowd. And oddly, cheering both parties of the bout. God, who enters this combat, this wrestling match not to thrash us but to thresh us, to send our grain flying up into the air so that the wind of God may sweep away the useless chaff.
God, who does this bizarre thing for us—deigning, Him the infinite eternal one, to descend that deeply to our level, to actually be so vitally concerned with my petty little self and your petty little self that He would get down in the dirt and mud of the world with us to rassle us? Yeah, let’s cheer him!
Or… cheer for the plucky underdog, the creature of mud and spittle who grapples and groans in the fight against the Immortal and Mighty One. Or… cheer for both. And see in this struggle, this bout, this wrestling match something new emerging, an eternally New God and a new Denis, something happening in the intimacy and strain of the dark night, that renders a depth of union, a revelation of love, a nuptial grace that makes of God and me a single entity in some fashion that beggars human language and understanding
It seems to me that this is the comfort for our carrion selves, this is the sure and perfect remedy against despair. To know that, in the turmoil and trouble, the real pain and sorrow of our lives as it comes to us, there is a real encounter with God, a real action of God to… well, do something to and in us that we do not understand, barely glimpse, and yet sustains us through the long night of battle to the dawn of day, when we, limping perhaps like Jacob, enter the Promised Land of God where we will live in peace forever.