‘Felix Randal‘ by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a sonnet separated into two quatrains, sets of four lines, and two tercets, sets of three lines. The sonnet conforms to the traditional Petrarchan rhyme scheme, ABBAABBA, for the first eight lines, then diverges slighting in the last six, rhyming CCDCCD.
The speaker of this poem is generally considered to be Hopkins himself. Hopkins knew, befriended, and delivered the last sacraments to an ironsmith by the name of Felix who was a member of his parish. This ironsmith passed away from what was most likely pulmonary tuberculosis. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Felix Randal
The poem begins with the speaker describing Randal as a large man made from a “big-boned” mold. His body had decayed over time from an unnamed illness caused by the “Fatal four disorders,” or humors, fighting within his body. This sickness “broke” him and he cursed himself for acquiring it. The speaker was able, by anointing Felix, to cure him for a time, but God had other plans.
The speaker then takes three lines to described how Felix’s illness created a bond between the two men and endeared them to one another. They are connected through “tears” and care.
The final three lines describe how as Felix was about to pass on, and immediately after he was gone, no one celebrated his life as a farrier like they should of. He was the strongest of his peers and crafted the shoes for the strongest of the horses. This is the memory that the speaker leaves the reader with and the one he is hoping will last.
Analysis of Felix Randal
Hopkins begins this piece by having his speaker, generally considered to be Hopkins himself, (see introductory material) introduce the main character of the poem, Felix Randal. The reader immediately finds out that in life Felix was a “farrier,” or a craftsman who’s responsible for taking care of horse’s hooves and shoes. The first line also contains a question as the speaker is reaching out to whoever is listening and asking if Felix Randal is “dead then?”
The answer to his question is yes, Randall has died. The speaker’s “duty” to Randal as his priest (see introductory material) has ended.
The speaker then, addressing a larger audience, asks who “watched” Randal pass on.The speaker describes Felix’s “big-boned and hardy-handsome” “mould” which has been lost. He is depicting Felix as having been made from a preset mold that imbued him with natural strength and strong looks.
This “mould” has been lost due to the “Fatal four disorders” that were “contend[ing” in his body. This is a reference to the four humors of humorism, the system of medicine that was first created by the Greeks and was popular throughout Europe up until the 19th century when modern medicine began taking it’s place. This system of pseudo-medicine was based around the belief that four bodily fluids were in singular control of one’s wellbeing.
It is clear that whatever plagued the farrier, most likely tuberculosis, (see introductory material) it was believed to be caused by all four humors being out of alignment.
Whatever this sickness was, it “broke him.” During the days of his decline he first “cursed” at his illness. He was angered by it and refused to accept it. As time passed he was “anointed,” or blessed, most likely by the speaker in his role as a priest, and due to this fact he was temporarily “mended.” But that was not God’s plan. Before the speaker even came to “anoint” him a “heavenlier heart” had decided his path “Months earlier” than the speaker had “Tendered to him” or attended him.
This section of lines concludes with the speaker sighing in resignation at the power of God and asking that God forgive Felix Randal for any offense he might have ever caused.
The first of the two concluding tercets begins with the speaker stating facts he has come to believe in relation to sickness and the ill.
The first is that after one sees the sick, one will be “endear[ed]” to them. They will engender in the visitor a feeling of love and a desire to help. Additionally, it endears the sick to the visitor. A connection is born between the two. If indeed this poem is based on real life events, Hopkins is describing the real connection he felt between himself and Felix.
The next line describes how the speaker’s touch brought comfort to Randal in his final days and hours and that his “tears” touched the speaker’s “heart.”
This set of lines concludes with the speaker mourning for Randal and lamenting his passing. He called him a “child” and “poor Felix Randal.” He feels this loss intensely and does not see Felix as a grown man who has lived his life but as an innocent taken too soon.
The last three lines of the poem describe the happy years that the farrier did get to live. As he was dying, with the speaker by his side, his “more boisterous years” were far from their thoughts.
These years include the times in which, “powerful” amongst other farriers, Randal “fettle[d],” or mended, the shoes of “the great grey drayhorse.” At the time of his death no one was remembering the best of Randal— when he was the greatest and strongest of the farriers and made the “sandal[s]” for the “drayhorse,” (a name for the type of horse used to pull the heaviest loads).
About Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex, England in July of 1844. He was the oldest of his siblings and was noted for his literary prowess as young child when he won awards in grammar school. In 1863, through the award of a grant, he was able to attend Balliol College, Oxford where he studied classics. There, he continued writing but also developed a life long passion for religion. In 1867 he left Oxford with a distinguished record. He then decide to become a Jesuit priest and to swear off writing.
In 1874 Hopkins started his study of theology at St. Beuno’s College in North Wales and under the influence of superiors, began to write poetry again. Hopkins was ordained into the priesthood in 1877 and served in various institutions throughout England. Hopkins continued to write for the rest of his life but only received any critical acclaim after his death of typhoid fever in 1889.
After his death a close friend, Robert Bridges, published a number of his poems in anthologies and then in 1918 he published the first collected edition of Hopkins’ poems. Today Gerard Manley Hopkins is considered one of the most notable writers of his time.