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Prayer for the week

13 December 2013

Ann Conway-Jones reflects on a Victorian poet who voiced his private anguish

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 mine 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 chervil, 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.

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 thrive?" (RSV).

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 through.

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 author.

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 mind.

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 argue.

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.

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