Depression in Hopkins' Sonnets of Desolation
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was, first and foremost, a man of the cloth. He seems to have set his gifts in musical composition, drawing, and poetry at a distant second to his ecclesiastical duties for most of his life, causing him to experience terrible bouts of depression. Hopkins poured out this depression in what are known as the Sonnets of Desolation, including "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," "Not, I'll carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee," and "No Worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief." In his 1970 essay entitled "The Dark Night of the Soul," Paul L. Mariani tells us that "while [Hopkins' friend Robert] Bridges thought that Carrion Comfort was probably the sonnet Hopkins told him in May was written in blood," No worst, there is none was probably meant" (59). "No Worst" seems to be set rather firmly in the lowest valley of that depression, and the cumulative effect of unrealized professional goals, political visions, and artistic skills contributed to its construction. The very finality of the phrasing Hopkins chose to open the sonnet with brook no argument; things can get no worse.
Part of this despair sprung from Hopkins' abstinence from writing. He was a Jesuit who converted to Catholicism in 1866. Due to his religious beliefs, he attempted to deny his talents; he felt that the level of pleasure he derived through poetic expression approached the sinful and "burned his youthful verses, determining 'to write no more, as not belonging to my profession'" (Britannica 1). Yet Hopkins seems to have been drawn uncontrollably to poetry. By 1875 he had begun to write again; stirred by the death of five nuns who drowned at sea, he penned what was to become one of his most famous works, "The Wreck of the Deutschland." He even dedicated 1877's "The Windhover" to "Christ our Lord" in the heading line. Though all of his works contain strong religious themes, he seems never to have been able to fully reconcile his art with his job, his chosen way of life. "Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?" he asks the Virgin Mary, but it seems he is crying out to the heavens for succor yet at the same time utilizing his poetic talent to soothe and comfort himself through emotional expression (No Worst, line 11).
Another important factor in Hopkins' depression is that he was not successful as a priest. According to Mariani, "there is no hard evidence that Hopkins ever felt he had been the triggering action for even one convert. Yet conversions are what he wished for his whole life" (54). In the poem "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," it is clear that, perhaps as a result of this failure (and in his view, coupled with his artistic indulgences,) Hopkins feels distanced from and powerless to communicate with God: "And my lament/ Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent/ To dearest him that lives alas! away" (line 6). Here...