Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou mine enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind
Them; birds build - but not I build; no, but
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)
ADVENT is the season of waiting. But let us not imbue waiting
with false piety. It can at times seem unbearable. Gerard Manley
Hopkins prefaces this sonnet with Jeremiah 12.1. He quoted it in
Latin, but in English it reads: "Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I
complain to thee; yet I would plead my case before thee. Why does
the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous
Jeremiah is struggling with his prophetic vocation. He
acknowledges God's righteousness, but goes on to assert his own
right to complain, and to point out the unfairness of life. This
verse, together with much else in the Hebrew Bible, such as the
psalms of lament and the book of Job, in turn emboldens the poet to
argue with God. He, too, wrestles with his sense of calling.
There is no false piety here; there are no deferential niceties.
He sets out his desperate frustration, and demands an answer. The
poem testifies to a friendship with God based on honesty and
directness, a refusal to stay silent in the face of
incomprehensible injustice. There is a formality to the language -
God is twice addressed as "Sir" - and the poem's structure includes
a tight rhyme-scheme; but the bitterness and sense of failure break
Hopkins was a Victorian Jesuit priest, who agonised over how to
reconcile his religious vocation with the creative impulse to write
poetry. This sonnet was written a few months before he died of
typhoid fever. Yet, like all good poetry, it speaks for itself:
there is no need to delve into the biographical details of its
Off the page comes the torment of seeing fertility all around -
from the delicate lacework of cow-parsley ("fretty chervil") to the
nest-building activities of birds - and feeling barren. Devotion to
God has not brought success of any kind, not even peace of
Meanwhile, far less deserving characters seem to be flourishing.
What, therefore, is the point? Hopkins may not have known it, but
in finding the words to express this desolation, he paradoxically
created a "work that wakes".
His endeavours did not lead nowhere. Voicing his private anguish
proved to be part of his service to humanity. Many people
experience desperation, feel crushed by the unfairness of life, and
are convinced that they are of no use; and his poetry comes as rain
in a parched land.
A medical term such as "depression" confers objective reality on
extreme negative feelings, but it is a cold, distant label; far
more precious is to discover that one is not alone; that someone
else knows such terrible emotions from the inside.
Hopkins shows us how to pray in situations of agony: throw all
those conflicted violent thoughts not at yourself, nor at others,
but at God. God can take it. Don't hold back: feel free to rage and
And if you can't find your own words, use this sonnet.
Dr Ann Conway-Jones is a freelance writer, and an Honorary
Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.