“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day” by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a fourteen-line sonnet that is separated into one set of eight lines and another set of six. The lines are also structured with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of ABBAABBA CCDCCD. Hopkins touches on a number of different sonnet-like elements in this piece, but the subject matter stands out. Unusual for sonnets, this piece is filled almost completely with despair. The speaker starts vaguely, then goes into great detail about the poor state of his life.
This piece is considered to be one of Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets,” in that it deals with the dark subject matter. Many of these pieces, such as “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” express feelings of alienation from society and from God. There is a theme of questioning running through these texts. Often Hopkins expresses his own frustration with, and depressions about, God.
As is common within sonnets, the first eight lines can be separated into two sets of four, known as quatrains. The two quatrains in the first stanza develop the speaker’s mental and emotional state. The first four speak on one terrible sleepless night and the second reveals that this night is one of many in a depressing period.
The volta, or turn, does not occur in this piece until the last two lines. The final couplet presents a poignant contrast to the initial ideas of this piece. Hopkins’ speaker realizes, after complaining about his own life for twelve lines, that he has it much better than others. The speaker believes in God, and that fact improves his life. For those who do not, he knows they are in “worse” situations.
Summary of I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he suffered a restless night. He was alone with his heart in the dark, waiting for the light. It becomes clear that this wait for the light is something that occurs at all hours of the day. He has waited not for days, but for his entire life. God has yet to show himself and burn off the darkness in and around the speaker’s mind and heart.
In the last six lines, he explains how inescapable his situation is. The beliefs he debates, and the internal depression he suffers, all reside within his body. All he can taste is his own “bitter taste,” as if in a constantly repeating cycle. The poem concludes with the speaker acknowledging that compared to the non-believers he has it good.
Analysis of I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
In the first four lines of this piece, the speaker begins by telling his listener that he woke on one particular night and felt “the fell of dark.” He knew right away that this environment was going to cause him pain. The speaker has a deep sorrow that he cannot shake and it is antagonized by any sort of external darkness. It becomes clear that the intended listener of this piece, the person or thing to which the lines are directed, is the speaker’s own heart.
He exclaims over the night, reminding himself and his heart that he has been through a lot. There are a number of “sights” he and his heart have seen and places they have been. These explorations initially sound physical, but it is more likely that he probed the darkest parts of his own mind and emotions.
The speaker also knows that until the light comes, he is going to be stuck in this liminal space with his heart and his thoughts. It does not feel like a healthy situation, a fact that only becomes clearer in the second quatrain.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
In the next four lines, the speaker explains how the night he suffered is not unusual. In fact, it is just one symptom of years of suffering he has endured. Rather than the “Hours” he implied in the first section, it is his “life” that has been this dark. He can’t find a way out of this depression, no matter what he does.
The speaker is seeking out something. It becomes clear in the next lines that that something is the light of God and he continues to wait for it.
He might “lament” and cry until there is nothing left, but that changes nothing. The final line of this section refers to his cries as “dead letters.” They are sent out to someone who cannot or will not respond to them. This is a likely reference to God who has shown himself to be unwilling to assist the speaker. The lack of divine intervention makes the situation even worse for the speaker.
This is even more poignant if the reader is to consider Hopkins as the speaker. He dedicated his life to God, becoming a Jesuit priest. If he is the speaker, then even that act of total devotion was not enough to cure him of this internal darkness and inability to sleep.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
The final six lines conclude the poem and supply the reader with a slightly surprising ending. He begins in the same place he left off, feeling very sorry for his situation and stating that he is “heartburn” and “gall.” The speaker simultaneously represents and experiences deep physical and emotional pain. He is stuck in a never-ending cycle in which all he can taste is his own “bitter” self. His life does not improve, in fact, he seems to be cursed down to his bones. This emphasizes the way the speaker feels about the impossibility of his situation. There is no way for him to escape his own body.
The poem concludes with the volta, or turn. Here, the speaker changes directions and acknowledges the fact that at least he believes in God. For those who don’t, the ”lost,” they have it much worse. Their lives, if similar to his, consist of darkness that has no hope of penetrating light. They are condemned, due to their own beliefs, to eternal darkness.