Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend by Gerard Manley Hopkins

‘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.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Epigraph

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.

 

Summary of Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend

‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins utilizes Bible passages to outline the speaker’s frustration with God.

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.


We analysed this poem twice

We enjoyed this poem so much, we had two of our team of poetry experts contribute, to provide two different analysis of Hopkin’s literature.
Read the second analysis

Analysis of Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend

Lines 1-4

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.

 

Lines 5-8

    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.

 

Lines 9-11

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.

 

Lines 12-14

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.

Ready to read the second analysis?

We enjoyed this poem so much, we had two of our team of poetry experts contribute, to provide two different analysis of Hopkin’s literature.
Read the second analysis
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's your thoughts? Join the conversation by commenting
We make sure to reply to every comment submitted, so feel free to join the community and let us know by commenting below.

Get more Poetry Analysis like this in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get new poetry analysis updates straight to your inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

  • Avatar Anu says:

    Thank you for the analysis. But I just want to know if the same poem has multiple analyses which are contradicting.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Most poems can be read multiple ways.

  • Avatar tenzin yangchen no says:

    Thank you for this deep analysis. I have my students referring to your writing for their course. Thank you so much for making such material accessible to everyone without any cost. Not many can afford to pay for every page that the people with the talents charge upon- Lots of Appreciation

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      What lovely feedback. We are so glad that the site gets used in that manner.

  • Avatar Franklyn Dunne says:

    Thank you for this brilliant analysis.
    This too has always been one of my favorite poems and I too had committed it to memory when back in college some fifty years ago.
    It was a find to be able to see the complete text!
    I recently decided to hand copy favorite poems into a book so that I would have them all in one place. The actual writing by hand has led to new discoveries in the text and in the sentiments.And I also see how my own responses to the poems have changed over the years.
    I like the conversational tone that Hopkins adopts in this dialogue with his Higher Power.And I like to the anguish and faith expressed at the conclusion
    May I be a bit autobiographical?
    When I took my first trip abroad in 1966 I was given a book of poetry called New Voices published by Pocket Poets. One of the poems resonated with me and although I lost the book I seemed to have held in memory fragments of the poem itself.Through the internet I located the lost to me book and purchased three copies.Although it has the title Man in a Bar the poem itself was written by Jenny Joseph who must have been quite a young woman at that time.I did not learn this until recently…
    When I first read the poem the sentiments expressed seemed spot on for what I might feel if I became an old man in a foreign land.
    I have become an old man living in a foreign land and am grateful to say that my life is nothing like that described by the poem’s(fictional?)old man.I am surrounded by loving family and with some health challenges still live an active life. And I probably have not been in a bar since I stopped drinking about fort three years ago!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Wow what a fantastic message. I’m glad you like the poem and our analysis of it. It sounds like you have had an interesting journey, my friend!

  • Avatar Michael J Butt says:

    Comment posted on poemanalysis.com

    When I was young and in the USAF during Vietnam I worked in the area of Aeromedical Evacuation. I worked long hours under extreme conditions but when it was time for takeoff or landing I was in my crew seat. I spent that time in different ways. Sometimes I would try to calculate in my head the speed of the plane by watching the runway markers every thousand feet and time on my watch. One day when I was not working but on crew rest, I found a book in the Salvation Army Store. That was the best dime I ever spent. The book was entitled “Old English Poets” and became my focus during takeoffs and landings. My favorite poem was this one. I had two other favorites, “Oh Margaret” also by Hopkins and “When I was one and twenty” by A.E. Housman.
    I memorized those poems and managed to keep my book with me for reference over the next 30 years or so before it became lost because of life and time. Now, this morning I was trying to recite it to myself and I had lost a line or two. That led me to the computer and this site, for which I am grateful. Well done.
    Life is so short and at times can be brutal. I find at my age, state of health and state of loneliness that remembering those old poems and the old friends who wrote them improves my spirit. Thank you so much.

    Michael Butt MD., Ret.
    4:30 PM 01-Apr-18

    • Hi Michael,

      Thank you for the brilliantly touching comment – it is for comments like this the website was first created.

      Please get in touch with us as we would like to thank you by sending yourself the Old English Poets that made such a long lasting impact on you – failing that, the closest book to old English poems with the ones you mentioned.

      All of the best,

      Will

  • Avatar Prodyot says:

    I discovered your site only today.
    And, I am very glad I did it.

    Your explanations are simply superb.

    I will surely make you a habit.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your feedback. I’m glad you enjoy the site.

  • Avatar Ben says:

    Excellent formally composed analysis

  • Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
    >
    Scroll Up