(Carrion Comfort)

Poem: (Carrion Comfort)
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Way back in high school, before I knew anything about poetry (though even then I styled myself a poet, in hindsight a “poet” of the kind you are liable to find on wordpress), I had my first encounter with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Even then, (Carrion Comfort) struck me, though the basic overview of sprung rhythm we received was inadequate to allow me to unlock its rhythm (and, to accept what blame is mine, I lacked any interest then even in learning to scan simpler meters).

Now almost a decade later, I’ve learned and mature enough to take a crack at it. Though a sonnet, (Carrion Comfort) is in hexameter rather than pentameter (we’ve seen this before). In this, I follow Hopkins himself, and disagree with Edward A. Stephenson, which disagreement I note since it was Stephenson who isolated the nine principles of sprung rhythm that make clear its workings. I owe him a great debt, but in this instance he is wrong.

In the scansion below, I have marked primary stresses with an acute accent and secondary stresses with a grave accent (though note that the accent on “bruisèd,” line 7, indicates pronunciation and not stress). Outrides are underlined; all outrides follow Hopkins’ own markings. Afterwards, I discuss some interesting features that emerge.

Nòt, Í’ll nòt, cárrion cómfort, Despáir, nòt féast on thée;
Nòt untwíst — sláck they may bé — thése làst stránds of mán
In me ór, mòst wéary, crý I cán no móre. I cán;
Càn sómethìng, hópe, wísh dày cóme, nòt chóose nòt to bé.
But áh, but Ó thou térrible, why wóuldst thou rúde on mé
Thy wríng-wòrld ríght fòot róck? lày a líonlìmb agáinst me? scán
With dárksome devóuring éyes my brúisèd bónes? and fán,
O in túrns of témpest, me héaped there; me frántic to avóid thèe and flée?

….Whý? That my cháff might flý; my gráin lìe, shéer and cléar.
Nay in áll that tóil, that cóil, since (séems) I kíssed the ród,
Hànd ráther, my héart lò! lápped strèngth, stóle jòy, wóuld làugh, chéer.
Chèer whóm though? the héro whose héaven-handling flúng me, fóot tród
Me? or mé that fóught him? O whích one? is it éach òne? That níght, that yéar
Of nów dòne dárknèss I wrétch lày wréstling wìth (my Gód!) my Gód.


  1. Hopkins in this poem takes full advantage of the freedom that sprung rhythm offers as a logaoedic meter. The base rhythm in sprung rhythm is a mix of trochees and dactyls, with monosyllables and first paeons (one stress followed by three slack syllables) as rarer exceptions. The danger of such a meter is that it becomes simply unprincipled, haphazard. Here that does not happen. The dominant rhythm is trochaic and often claustrophobic (see my second comment below), with dactyls used to create breathing space. To give just one example, in the first line we have three trochees (I’ll not; -pair not; feast on) and, ignoring for now the rove-over syllables, a monosyllable (thee). There is also the line-opening anacrusis (Not), which in my view takes a secondary stress. Two of the trochees have secondary stresses (I’ll not; -pair not), making the line very heavy. Yet in the middle we have two dactyls (carrion; comfort, de-). After the inward-looking insistence of “Not, I’ll not,” Hopkins turns outward to his oppressor. The rhythm captures this outward turning beautifully.

  2. Hopkins also uses dipodic feet to excellent effect in modulating the rhythm, even where the pattern of primary stresses and slack syllables (counting secondarily stressed syllables as slack) is identical. Consider the endings of line 3 (cry I can no more. I can) and line 11 (lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer). Both have the following stress pattern: / u / u / u /. In line 3, however, every slack syllable truly lacks a stress, whereas in line 11 every slack syllable takes a secondary stress. Both are incredibly heightened moments of the poem (though what isn’t, in Hopkins?), yet they achieve very different effects. In line 3, the speaker’s cry comes through clearly and cleanly, is uncluttered and musical. By contrast, in line 11, the effect is that of a slow build, two steps forward (the primary stresses), one step back (the secondary stresses), finally culminating in that crucial word, “cheer,” which brings us to the central tension of the poem, “Cheer whom though?”, about which more in the next comment.

  3. It is an interesting feature of the poem that the word “not,” which appears six times in the first four lines, always takes a secondary stress and not a primary stress. This runs contrary to my first inclination on reading the poem, but in the context of the whole it is actually quite crucial that “not” never takes a primary stress. Notice what syllables are forced to take a primary stress because of this: I’ll; (des)pair; feast; (un)twist; choose. All concern either the speaker (I’ll) or the speaker’s actions (the rest). The stressing thus points to the self-centeredness of the speaker, setting up the later question, central to the entire poem: “Cheer whom though?” And notice also that once he asks this question, once he asks whether it is himself or his oppressor whom he cheers, how the word “me” takes or fails to take a stress. When considering his oppressor (heaven-handling flung me, foot trod / me), it does not. But when he considers himself (or me that fought him), it does. Hopkins’ genius shows itself in the littlest things.


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