I was a little surprised yesterday to discover how fond Stanley Kunitz was of Gerard Manley Hopkins while running down a reading of “God’s Gandeur,” but when I consider today’s poems, I probably shouldn’t have been because I hear reflections of these poems when I read some of Kunitz’s best poems.
As it turns out, Hopkins poems on grief and despair rival those of John Donne’s great “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you.” They even rival his beautiful celebrations of God’s Grace noted yesterday.
Thank God I haven’t felt the kind of despair expressed in:
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?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-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’.
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.
for quite awhile, but that doesn’t mean I have forgotten that despair, or even that I will ever be able to forget that despair. Considering how much I like this poem, perhaps I don’t even want to forget these moments for they are part of the tapestry that makes up life itself. I would no more want to forget how I felt when I got my “Dear, Loren” letter or when my first wife told me she wanted a divorce, than I would want to forget the joy of falling in love the first time or the joy of having my first child, and even a second.
For me, no line of poetry has ever captured this sense of despair better than “Pitched past pitch of grief,/More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.” The “wag” in me might go so far as to suggest that trying to pronounce these lines clearly in front of a room of rowdy students may actually have reinforced the feeling that they truly capture a sense of despair.
Certainly the mind has “cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” that could only be doubted by those who are too young to have experienced life’s inevitable tragedies, perhaps foreshadowed by those nightmares toddlers endure.
Sometimes fighting against this despair can seem as frightening as the despair itself:
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist”slack they may be”these last strands of man
In me “r, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruis”d bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, ch”er.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, f”ot tr”d
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
I’d have to admit at times to “feasting” on my despair, or, at the very least, indulging in extended periods of living the “blues.” Bobby Bland’s “Further Up the Road,” or John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” come to mind as good ways to indulge those feelings of despair that accompany divorce and other moments of despair. But, then, Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker’s rendition of “Never Get Out of these Blues Alive” still gets played a lot around here, 24 times in less than 6 months according to iTunes.
Still, I’d like to think that the best reason for suffering the blues is so that “my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” For Hopkins, despair was a way to find God; for me, despair is a way of finding my true self, though I’m not entirely convinced those two statements are entirely incompatible. If we could see beyond the immediate inner turmoil, we might find that it is, indeed, our better self, some might even say our true self, that struggles to overcome those forces that tempt us to sacrifice our true values for immediate gain, immediate gratification.