‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a fourteen-line poem that conforms to the traditional pattern of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. This means that beyond having fourteen lines, the poem also follows a pattern of ABBAABBA in the first eight lines. This section of the poem is known as the octet. In the second section, known as the sestet, the six lines follow a pattern of CDCDCD. While the sestet is known to vary in Petrarchan sonnets, the pattern Hopkins chose for ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’ is one of the most traditional.
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Before getting to the first lines of the poem, a reader comes across the epigraph. An epigraph is a brief piece of information at the beginning of a poem. It could provide details regarding the setting, or contain a quote or statement about the piece. In this case, the epigraph is in Latin and it reads:
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur;
This loosely translates to “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend; if I plead against thee, yet remonstrate with thee I must; why is it that the affairs of the wicked prosper.” The lines come from Psalm 119 of the Latin translation of the Bible by St Jerome. These lines tell the reader something about what Hopkins wants to discuss in the text. They also make the reader very aware that the poem is going to be religious in nature.
The poem begins with the speaker using a line from the Bible, specifically Psalm 119. Through this passage, he asks God why everything he does comes to nothing, but that which nonbelievers do is successful. He sees this as being very unfair. The next lines set out a possible scenario in which the speaker turned from God. He wonders if his situation would get worse or if everything would stay the same. There is clearly some doubt in his mind about God and his ability to influence the speaker’s life.
In the last lines, he specifically asks God that he be allowed, like the birds, to build something that lasts. Thus far everything he’s made in his life has come to nothing.
Analysis of Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
In the first lines of ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’ the speaker makes use of the lines from Psalm 119. He asks God, through the words translated by St. Jerome, why sinners prosper. The speaker is clearly of the same mind. He wants to know why, since he loves and puts his faith in God, why others who don’t do so, are allowed to do well. This is a genuine question, but the speaker does not expect to receive an answer.
It is followed by another question, this one asking why all his own “endeavour[s] end” in disappointment. This phrase does not have any contextual information behind it. A reader would be unaware of what the speaker is specifically referring to, and that’s the point. The lines are meant to tap into a wide variety of situations. Perhaps someone hearing or reading this poem will feel the same and be able to apply the concerns to their own situation.
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
The next two and a half lines of ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’ are complex. Through a jumble of syntax, the speaker asks how God would treat him differently if the speaker was not so devout. It seems to him, in this moment of doubt and frustration, that being a believer and a nonbeliever come out to about the same thing. It is also clear in these lines that the speaker does not want to offend God. This is seen through the insertion of remarks such as “O thou my friend.” He wants to make sure that God knows that he’s still on his side.
In the next lines, he repeats the same sentiment that was in the first part of the poem. He refers to the “sots and thralls of lust.” These are the servants of lust, those who are in its power, rather than in Gods. They are the nonbelievers and the faithless. The speaker feels as though these people he considers to be bad, “thrive” more than he does.
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
The situation set out in the first eight lines is unfair to the speaker as he spends his “life upon [God’s] cause.” The next lines are more complex than those which came before. He goes into specific details about his own situation. First, though, he looks to the “banks and brakes,” or thickets. They are “leavèd…thick.” He is speaking about the number of leaves that cover them and then, about the “chervil” that is fretted over their surfaces. This connects into the twelfth line.
Them; 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.
In the last three lines of ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend,’ the speaker continues his description of this natural scene. The wind shakes the “banks and brakes,” but they remain intact. It is there, that “birds build.” Unlike the speaker, who is unable to build anything. Through these lines, he is implying that anything he sets out to do falls apart. What he does have though, is “strain.” He is like “Time’s eunuch.” He has time, it passes, but nothing gets made. The only things that he breeds are words that don’t wake.
This is what he is asking for from God; that he be sent rain to give his roots life and the ability to make something of himself.