‘Carrion Comfort’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the poet’s “terrible sonnets,” a set of poems he wrote during a period of depression. Also included under this broad title is, ‘No worst, there is none’ and ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.’ The poem is separated into one set of eight lines, known in this context as an octet, and another set of six, known as a sestet. This is the traditional structure associated with a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. The same can be said for the rhyme scheme which follows the pattern of ABBAABBA CDCDCD.
Another aspect of a Petrarchan sonnet which Hopkins takes advantage of is the difference between the octet and the sestet, and the turn that occurs between the two. The turn or volta represents a fundamental change in a poem. This could mean a change in speaker, tense, setting, or belief. In the case of ‘Carrion Comfort,’ the second half of the poem moves away from the terrible despair the speaker has experienced and onto why it has happened to him in the first place and the kind of life he is leading now.
In regards to the metrical pattern, there is no set recognizable progression to the rhythm. This is due to the fact that Hopkins wanted his poems to relate more directly to human speech, a technique known as “sprung rhythm.” In the lines a reader looking closely can recognize the way he bounces back and forth between iambs and trochees, moving the stressed syllables all over.
Summary of Carrion Comfort
The poem begins with the speaker directing his words to the emotion of “Despair.” In these lines he tells “Despair” that he is not going to give in, he won’t kill himself or give up the “last strands of man” he has. It is his intention to continue fighting. He spends a number of lines questioning “Despair” about why he has been treated so poorly. The speaker walks through all the terrible ways “Despair” comes to him.
In the second stanza, the speaker gives a very different perspective on these experiences. It turns out that he has come through them successfully. In fact, they have made him stronger. His heart has lapped up new strength and is able to cheer him for him and cheer God for putting him through this test.
Analysis of Carrion Comfort
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.
In the first lines of ‘Carrion Comfort’ it quickly becomes clear that the speaker is talking to “Despair.” The fact that Hopkins chose to capitalize on despair shows a desire to imbue the force with agency. It is more of a sentient, interactive being than something one experiences independently. When the speaker within a poem addresses an intangible concept, like despair or death or love, it is known as an “apostrophe.”
He refers to death as “carrion comfort.” The emotion, or sense of being, is comfort for carrion, or dead animals. The speaker sees despair and death as closely related, so much so they feed off one another. Hopkins’ speaker, who is quite possibly the poet himself, tells death that he is not going to “feast on thee.” He is choosing not to give into despair, or as he says in the second and third lines, “untwist…these last strands of man / In me.”
The speaker has no plans to give in to this deep unhappiness or lose the last bits of “man,” or humanity, that he has in him. He cannot cry anymore due both to his weariness and to the fact that he is determined not to give in. In the fourth line, he adds onto this, saying that he can “hope” and “wish day come.” Lastly, he says that he can’t choose to stop existing. He isn’t going to commit suicide.
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?
In the second half of the octet, the speaker refers to “Despair” as “O thou terrible.” He asks, rhetorically, why he has been treated this way. The speaker feels as though he has suffered the “wring-world right foot” of “Despair.” It has been crushing and wringing his world. In this poem, the emotion of despair is clearly a strong one. It has the ability to destroy the speaker, but as stated above, he’s determined to resist.
He goes on, asking why “Despair” chose to “lay a lionlimb against” him. This is a strange phrase, but one that relates back to the Bible, specifically the Book of Peter. The text describes the devil as a lion. “Despair” has taken full advantage of this speaker. It is truly like a predator, drilling into the speaker’s “bruised bones” with “devouring eyes.”
The emotion is also able to send storms, or “turns of tempest” to the speaker who is often “heaped there.” These sudden disastrous moments make him frantic to run from “Despair.”
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.
There is a distinct difference between the first stanza and the second of ‘Carrion Comfort,’ as a turn, or volta, occurs. Now, the speaker is going to spend time discussing how he got into this terrible situation in the first place.
There is another metaphor at the beginning of the first line. He compares himself to a stalk of wheat while continuing to question “Despair” over its motives. He believes that everything the force inflicted upon him was so that his “chaff might fly” and show his “grain” clearly. This is the first uplifting statement in the text and shows that the speaker might be able to overcome “Despair” after all. Basically, he states that all the suffering he endured and still is enduring, was set upon him to make him stronger.
He continues on in this way, explaining again that the suffering has actually be a net benefit to him. It has been difficult to get through, he has toiled, but now he is able to “kiss the rod.” This is a reference to a rod used to beat someone, usually a child. It is another way of saying that he’s grateful for what has happened to him. He thanks “Despair,” and likely God, for what has happened to him. Over the period of suffering his heart “lapped strength” and “stole joy.”
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.
In the last three lines of ‘Carrion Comfort’ the speaker asks a few more questions. First, who his heart should be cheering for. It could be the “hero” who threw him into “Despair,” another reference to God. Or, maybe his heart should cheer for itself, for the speaker who “fought him.” There is a third option, perhaps his heart could cheer for both. It could be that “each one” is deserving of praise.
The final line makes clear that the speaker has set the darkness to the side. This whole process has led him to one final conclusion, that the whole time he was wrestling with “God.” The exclamation here makes it seem as though the speaker made the realization at the moment.