Poetry as Prayer: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “No Worst, there is None”
I am currently working on a paper for the Southwest Conference of Christianity and Literature, on “Prayer as Theater and Poet as Scriptwriter: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Terrible Sonnets.’” This is an extract from the draft of that paper.
Prayer (both private and public) often becomes a theater for various performances of the self, to an audience consisting not just of God but also of ourselves and other people. In this context, Christians often feel pressure to represent themselves along the lines of what they, or the community, imagine a ‘good Christian’ to look like. In the end, it may be that we feel that to express doubt, pain, or anger is to play the part of the villain, and our representation of ourselves before God becomes false and shallow.
One way to break out of this situation is to consciously embrace the idea of theater: to allow a poet to provide a ‘script’ for us. In the paper, I look at three poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Thou art indeed just, Lord,” “Carrion Comfort,” and “No Worst, there is None.”
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.Comforter, where, where is your comforting?Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chiefWoe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fallFrightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheapMay who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our smallDurance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: allLife death does end and each day dies with sleep.
We can begin with the bleakest of the three sonnets that we are going to examine here, “No Worst, there is None.” This is a powerful expression of near-despair and crushing depression.
The octave of the sonnet sets up the poet-narrator’s cry of agony. “No worst, there is none. / Pitched past pitch of grief, / More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.” These opening words tear to pieces any of the shallow, sentimental sayings about dealing with pain. Hopkins has been hanging on through pain, but rather than the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, his pain only increases.
It is important to note here that the narrator is very clearly giving us a Christian voice. He has cried out in his pain; we might ask, has he prayed about it? Has he offered his pain to God? Yes, indeed he has, and it would seem to no avail. “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?” This is an agonizing line; for a person in agony, it seems almost a mockery that the Holy Spirit should be called the ‘Comforter’ if no comfort is forthcoming. He turns to Mary to ask for prayer, as indeed he might turn to any friend, but likewise, feels no sense that her prayers for relief are being answered: “Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”
The second half of the octave rises in intensity, as Hopkins seeks to find words to convey his pain. His cries are like huddled sheep, like metal being beaten on an anvil, like shrieking storm winds.
From this point of intensity of emotion, the turn of the sonnet drops into deadly quiet. If the octave shows the intensity of grief, the sestet shows the terror of depression. “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”
This, too, is an important part of Hopkins’ poem-prayer.
It is often easier to legitimize agonized grief than quiet depression. In a church or prayer group setting, or in an individual Christian’s own mind, the heaviness of depression, the crushing feeling of being unable to feel or respond as one would like, is often not recognized as pain in the same way that emotionally expressed pain is. People often do not know how to respond, or they trivialize it — as indeed Hopkins notes: “Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.” Those who have never experienced depression may indeed hold it cheap; which leaves the sufferer with even more of a burden. Hopkins captures it here: the abruptness of the fall into depression (“cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer”) that can catch one by surprise; the depth of the fall, which is all the more terrible in that one is never sure whether there is an end to it (“no man-fathomed”). Hopkins also captures the sense of anxiety that often goes with depression: “Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there”: an image of hanging on the cliff, holding on to the rock-face for dear life, unable to climb upward yet desperately afraid of falling further.
The sestet then acknowledges human frailty: “Nor does long our small / Durance deal with that steep or deep.” The sufferer cannot hold on forever; Hopkins recognizes that we cannot endure. And so the closing lines are a very bleak sort of comfort, one that is only a comfort in comparison to the “whirlwind” of despairing emotion that he has been experiencing: “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
There is no hopeful turn toward God here, or at least not one that’s made explicit. Hopkins’ only hope, if you can call it hope, is for death, and short of that, for the little death that sleep brings at the end of the day.
We can compare this to Psalm 88, which ends “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (Ps 88:18); despite the Psalmist’s failure to see any light ahead, his words are still included in Holy Scripture. In Hopkins’ sonnet, he cries out in the octave to the Holy Spirit; and, receiving no response, in the sestet he does not attempt to make any resolution of his own. His brokenness is complete, but he does not venture to draw any conclusions about what it means, or whether it will come to an end any time soon, or whether God will use it for good. No; he simply looks to the end, and nothing more.
It is a powerful expression of trust in God: that nothing is too much to put before Him. Hopkins does not feel obligated to wrap his pain in pious sayings about trusting that God will make everything all right, or that there is a purpose in his suffering. He hurts too much, and is too depressed, to even believe that. His is the prayer of complete brokenness: no pretenses, no hope, no energy even to ask for help.