Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorium prosperatur?
‘Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgements: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?’ Jeremiah, 12:1.
Today’s lesson, sisters and brothers, was chosen as the title for a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Brace yourselves: the sonnet is more than a little bit special.
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?
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,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty cheveril, look, and fresh wind shakes
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.
How does Hopkins do this to me? How does he – a religious man writing about matters of religion – reduce me, an embittered atheist, to tears in a mere fourteen lines?
The cri de coeur that Hopkins gave such lovely utterance to hits me so hard, I think, because the moral quandary it expresses is universal, and so also is its despair. But more importantly, atheist though I am, I cannot help but weep for the man so trapped between theology and theodicy, and so eloquent about his plight.
Consider. Here is a sincere true believer: not someone who professes their faith as though it proved their moral decency, or their fitness to be elected to office. Hopkins really meant it. For Hopkins, the whole world trembled in its eagerness to show the presence of god. Everything from the merest pattern of the ground (‘fold, fallow and plough’) to the flight of a bird (‘how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing’) spoke to him of god’s intimate presence, and god’s bounty.
And yet this faith was not enough entirely to sustain him.
Nothing on the technical side can be faulted in this poem, so far as I’m concerned. It runs over the allotted ten syllables per line at least twice (the third, in line eleven, is debatable: it depends on the way you pronounce ‘cheveril’), but if you’re looking for infelicities in it, counting the syllables is the best you’ll do.
Isn’t the caesura in the first quatrain just perfect? It precisely expresses the poet’s tentative affect as he questions his creator. ‘I love you, and revere you,’ he says, ‘but my criticisms of you have all the more force because of my love.’ It’s a telling point.
And while the atheist in me has a ready response, the questions Hopkins asks are so beautiful and brittle that I dare not give my answer.
The line that really breaks my heart is ‘Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.’
Hopkins bred work of astonishing vigour in his life (although none of his poems were published until 1918, twenty-nine years after his death), but he was never destined to have children. It seems probable that Hopkins was gay: although he was only happy when he had the chance to exult in the beauty of the natural world. ‘Time’s eunuch’ was phenomenally fertile, but never in the way he wanted to be. His works never woke crying to be caressed into smiling sleep.
What impresses me most of all about this sonnet (after I’ve dried my eyes and the goose-bumps have settled down) is its lack of bitterness. Hopkins had every reason to spit the dummy in spectacular fashion – but instead he wrote a sensitive love-poem tenderly exploring the key disappointment in his life.
Quare via impiorium prosperatur?
You don’t have to be religious to ask that question.
The most frightening thing about really great pieces of art is that they end conversations: they leave you with nothing to say.
I’ve been worrying at this post for about seven hours. I’ve only now realised that there’s nothing to be added to Hopkins’ plea.
Just go back, please, and read the poem again. That incitement is the whole point of this post.