Poetry as Prayer (2): Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Thou art indeed just, Lord”
In the first part of this paper, I wrote about Hopkins’ poem “No Worst, there is None”; here, I follow up with a reflection on another of the Terrible Sonnets, “Thou art indeed just, Lord”.
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contendWith thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why mustDisappointment all I endeavour end?Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dostDefeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lustDo in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakesNow, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are againWith fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakesThem; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)
In the second sonnet that we are considering, “Thou art indeed just, Lord,” Hopkins gives voice not to the deadly coldness of depression, as we saw in “No worst, there is none,” but to anger. The poet-narrator here feels that he has been badly treated, and speaks up boldly to God to say so. It is worth noting that Hopkins seems aware of just how bold he is being: he prefaces the poem with the lines from Jeremiah that provide the inspiration (and indeed the opening words) for his own sonnet. As with the echo of the lament psalms in the earlier poem, this serves to underscore the legitimacy of bringing complaint, as well as praise, before God.
Of the three poems that we are considering today, this is the most personal in its address to God. The entire poem is addressed to God: calling His attention to the situation, asking for an explanation, and pleading for help. The very directness of the poet-narrator’s speech suggests an ongoing conversation, an intimacy that means that formalities can be, if not disregarded, at least set mostly aside. Hopkins gives two clear but brief references to God’s goodness in the poem: the opening words, “Thou art indeed just, Lord” and the reference to God as “my friend.” But both of these are immediately balanced by the poet’s own countervailing words: “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend / With thee; but, sir, so what I please is just”; “Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, / How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost / Defeat, thwart me?” Hopkins evidently feels no compulsion to gently build up to his complaint, or to hedge his complaint with assurances of his piety.
This is a refreshingly confident poem: God is God, and presumably He can handle Hopkins’ straight-up questions and complaints without being offended or shocked. And the reader, participating in Hopkins’ words by reading this poem and perhaps using its words as prayer, thus is put in the position of very boldly addressing God — perhaps more boldly and forthrightly than they intended to.
There is no false piety in this poem. Hopkins, though aware of his own sin and weakness, also knows that he is consciously striving to love and serve God. He has made tremendous personal sacrifice (in career, friends, family relationships) for his vocation as a priest: it is simply accurate to say, as he does here, that he “spend[s], / Sir, life upon thy cause.” Given this objective situation, it is only honest for Hopkins to note that “sinners’ ways prosper” (as his do not) and that “the sots and thralls of lust / … thrive” as, again, he does not. The poem is forthright: as far as the poet-narrator can tell, the bad guys are winning and the good guys are losing. This is what the world often looks like – and if Christians believe that they ought to see evidence of being rewarded for their faith, and see evidence of their prayer, witness, and service transforming the world, it is not surprising that many Christians falter in their faith, or lose faith entirely, upon discovering that although we look forward to the redemption of the world that is the final result of Christ’s victory on the cross, in the short run this translates not into worldly victory but rather suffering and death for Christ’s followers.
But here, already, we see the way that Hopkins’ poem transforms the experience of complaint even in the midst of it. On a first reading, the sense of complaint may seem paramount: the poet-narrator feels wronged and wants God to set things right. Yes, to an extent. But more than that, the octave speaks very clearly of the poet-narrator’s sense of justice. It is not right that sinners should prosper while the righteous suffer. It is not consistent with the character of God, nor the witness of Scripture, that this situation be how the world really is. In raising his voice in complaint, the poet-narrator is orienting himself God-ward: seeing the world in the light of God’s goodness. In his voice of complaint, the poet-narrator gives us a voice of affirming (contra fatalism or indifference) that God is good, that God is sovereign, and that if God’s goodness is not evident in the world, then something, at some point, has gone wrong — and God is the one who can set it right.
It is interesting to note what happens in the turn. In the octave, the poet-narrator railed against human wickedness and called on God for an explanation. In the sestet, the poet turns to a lyrical description of nature, God’s creation, pointing out the ways in which God’s goodness is evident to him: in the leafy hedgerows, “lacèd… with fretty chervil,” giving us an image of lacework, and delicate fretted carving; “birds build” nests to raise their young. The images of growth and generation are important here, for Hopkins was a celibate priest. He knows that he will not have children, the usual way of creating a life’s legacy that would continue onward, but he is a priest, a scholar, a teacher, and a poet: all forms of creation and generation. However, in calling himself “time’s eunuch,” he expresses a sense of frustration in his vocation. His teaching, preaching, and writing all seem to fail to bear fruit; he cannot “breed one work that wakes.”
The sonnet closes with an agonizing and beautiful line: “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.” The poet-narrator has ceased to complain; he has opened his heart fully in prayer, holding nothing back, and now can simply ask. He does not hedge his prayer with “if it is your will”: rather, in the direct manner of saying “Give us this day our daily bread”, he simply asks for that “rain” that will allow him to flourish like the other green and growing things he names in the sestet.
It is perhaps worth noting that Hopkins did not see his work bear fruit during his lifetime – but his prayer was answered. He did create “work that wakes.”