Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, 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 bruised 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, cheer.
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
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.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Between the end of my freshman year and beginning of my junior year as an undergraduate at Gordon College, I must have walked a thousand laps around the campus quad between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and midnight. It was often dangerous and foolhardy, given the hour and solitude, and the epitome of all that is stubborn in me. I may very well have walked a rut into the pavement. I walked in all kinds of weather, mostly alone, and one time nearly met my early demise under a moving salt truck as I determinedly trudged/slid my way around the campus following an ice storm.
I walked mainly because it was something to do. Something I could do other than “not choose not to be.” It was a small, perhaps pathetic (though nonetheless real), action against Despair. I think Gerard Manley Hopkins would have understood this.
I love Hopkins’ use of fighting and fraught language in Carrion Comfort. It is how depression feels sometimes, a fighting for the right words, a wrestling with meaning. Like the three times in the first line repeating the word “not.” It’s the beginning of getting his fight on, even in a stuttering way. That is when depression doesn’t get the better of you, when you can still fight it. And then a fourth time at the beginning of the second line, he does it again: “Not untwist… these last strands of man / in me.” I hear you, GM. Fight it, man, fight it.
It was during my long walks alone around campus that I discovered that large rodents feasted at the dumpsters (I didn’t get close enough to identify them, but I assume they were rats). I don’t claim to be a subject matter expert on all things Rattus. What I do know by late night observation is they are not particular in their eating habits. You may even say they are carrion consumers. They eat dead stuff, whatever we throw away.
Giving in to despair is succumbing to the temptation to be less than human. Carrion comfort is giving up our particular will toward special action in favor of passive mere survivalist rat behavior. It’s junk food binging at the extreme.
No, says Hopkins (and so said I as I paced and paced the college campus): I can. I can be more than a rat. “I can; / can something” may be my favorite four words in this entire poem. In its still stuttering way, it separates us from the rats. We can have a will that moves toward some specific thing, which in itself ishope and a move toward not choosing not to be.
It is not surprising to me – based on my own experience with the ups and downs of depression – that the next few lines move Hopkins away from despair and into anger. Depression is anger internalized. When we begin to take action against it, the inevitable happens – it moves outward. And Hopkins goes right for the big anger – taking on God Himself, asking, “O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me / Thy wring-world right foot rock?” In other words, why are you roughing me up, God?
And then he eventually finds meaning: “Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” I remember the moment things began to clear for me in college. I had just seen Out of Africa, and there was a scene in it in which Meryl Streep takes coffee beans in her hands, rubs them together, and blows away the chaff (or whatever you call the crusty stuff that comes off of coffee beans). It was an “Ah ha moment” for me. Oh, God, that’s what You’ve been up to. That’s why all this pain. It’s emotional exfoliation. I get it now.
Ironically, it’s sort of like Neitzche’s often quoted statement, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Of course, Neitzche wasn’t trying to find meaning with or from God, but rather without, which would have led to a very different poem, I dare say.
I love how Hopkins ends this poem with a nod to Jacob’s fighting match with an angel (Genesis 32). Jacob would have his blessing from God if he had to wrestle the Most High over it; even if he had to limp away, bruised, broken, but still blessed, doggonit. Jacob was many things, but he was no dumpster diving, carrion feeder. He took action.
So when I begin to the see that Black Dog’s shadow around the corner, still, I put on my walking shoes. And limp my way into a blessing.
Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)