‘No worst, there is none.’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a fourteen-line sonnet that is separated into two stanzas. The first is made up of eight lines, known as an octet, and the second: six, or a sestet. This piece is one of a few included in Hopkins self-proclaimed “Terrible Sonnets.” These works were written in the 1880s while Hopkins worked to escape from depression. His personal despair is evident in these texts. Another included in this same category of sonnets is, ‘I wake and feel the fell of Dark, not day.’
The lines follow the structured rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet. This means that the first octet conforms to a pattern of ABBAABBA. Within the Petrarchan form, the second set of lines can utilize almost any pattern. There are a few that are more common than others, such as CDCDC, the pattern used by Hopkins.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is in a place that is so bad it would be almost impossible to tell if it got worse. When more pangs come, he’ll feel them though as they’ve learned to from the “forepangs,” or those which came before. He goes on to appeal to God, Jesus, and Mary for help. He feels as if they have abandoned him.
In the next set of lines the speaker goes on to discuss his own sorrow as a herd of various pains. They all stem from the common “world-pain.” That is, the greater unhappiness that is inherent to the human condition. Luckily, or unluckily, the speaker’s pain comes and goes, at least to an extent. The “lull” that he speaks of is later defined as death itself, or more often, as sleep at the end of the day. These are the only things he has to look forward to.
Meter and Tone
In regards to meter, the lines continue in the traditional Petrarchan scheme of iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
From the first lines of ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ it is clear that the speaker’s tone is going to be quite solemn and dark. As stated above, these lines were written in the midst of the poet’s own depression. It is not explicitly stated that the speaker is Hopkins himself, but that is likely the case.
Analysis of 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?
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by stating that his life, and the things that are occurring around and within him can get “No worst.” Everything is at the pinnacle of darkness. There is nothing that could happen to him now that would bring him to a worse place. He also says that his mental state is set in a place that is “past pitch of grief.” His life has gone right off the edge and there is no relief that allows him a wider view of what’s happening.
He goes on to describe how the new pans which continually come to him will have learned from “forepangs.” This means that they are going to be even worse. They will be “wilder” and make him “wilder.” His body will be wrung by them.
In the next two lines, the speaker turns to address “Mary, mother of us.” He is speaking to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as described within the Christian tradition. These lines imply that the speaker feels as if he has been abandoned by God or those others who are meant to protect him. She should be there to comfort him but isn’t. Her “relief” is nowhere to be found.
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, 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.”’
In the next four lines, or quatrain, the speaker goes on to describe his own actions in this deep dark place he inhabits. He states that his “cries heave” out into the distance. They are so numerous they’re in “herds.” The herd that is made out of his most painful emotions is created around “a main, a chief / Woe.”
This woe is not completely defined. Instead, it stems from “world-sorrow.” He is moved so profoundly by the general suffering of the world. This is further fleshed out in the next lines with the metaphor of an “age-old anvil.” He feels as if he is set upon an anvil, and is being hammered on over and over again. There is a brief “lull” in the pain and pressure but then it comes back. The hammer is “sing[ing]” as it moves through the air and hits the metal.
The final two lines of this section inform the reader that the speaker’s depression is not always as intense as it is at this moment. The depression speaks in the last line, yelling out, stating that it must be “fell” or painful, and by necessity has to be brief or it would destroy the speaker. Just like a hammer that never lets off a piece of metal on the anvil.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
In the sestet of ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ the speaker changes tactics with a “turn” or volta. This is a rearrangement of the poem which in this case allows the speaker to more directly describe his experiences in relation to the human condition. He states that his mind, and the human mind in general, “has mountains.” There are “cliffs of fall” and “sheer” areas that “no-man” who hasn’t been there could possibly “fathom.”
He goes on to say that humanity has a limited “durance” or lifetime on the planet. The limitations of this period do not allow one to truly deal with the darkness of the mind. The final lines describe death as the “lull” that the speaker looks forward to. The same can be said of “sleep” at the end of the day. It is what he has to look forward to.