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Cheer up, Shmoopers. It's not that bad, really. And if it is that bad, well, that's actually a good thing.
We'll explain. This, in a nutshell (section title alert!), is the message of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Carrion Comfort," which gives us a portrait of terrible trials, but also amazing resilience.
And Hopkins had plenty to draw from in his real-life experiences. He was born in London in 1844 to a well-off family that valued the arts. When he was 22, though, he took a sharp left turn from upper-class artist and converted to Catholicism. He became an ordained priest in 1877 and, while he was studying for the priesthood, he even abandoned writing poetry.
Luckily for us, though, he picked it up again, though none of his poems ever saw the light of day in his lifetime. They were first published in 1918, nearly thirty years after poor Gerard died in Dublin from typhoid fever. It was during those last years of his life that he wrote "Carrion Comfort," along with five other poems that have come to be known collectively as his "terrible sonnets."
So are they really that bad? Well, that's up for you to decide, but "terrible" here does not refer to the quality of the poems, but rather to their subject matter. You see, after Hopkins moved to Dublin to take a job as a professor of Greek and Latin, he fell into a deep state of depression. He was a big fan of the natural world, so he hated the noise and dirt of the city (which, apparently, also included typhoid fever).
At the same time, as a devout Catholic, Hopkins saw his depression as a kind of divine test, something sent by God to toughen up and refine his spirit. That's essentially what the speaker of "Carrion Comfort" acknowledges. Like his other "terrible sonnets," this poem features a speaker in spiritual crisis. Unlike some of those other poems, though, this one features a somewhat happy ending. The speaker has come through on the other side of his depression, and now he sees that he's been made a happier and stronger person as a result.
This is really a kind of ultimate silver-lining poem, one that you could apply to any terrible time of your own. Whether you're hating on Dublin or just cramming for an English final, Hopkins has a feel-good poem for you that can inspire you in your darkest hour.
Feeling down? Caught the blues? Have a serious case of the Mondays? Of course you do—or, at least, you have at some point in your life. No matter how full of rainbows and puppy dog tails your life may be, some day a little rain is going to fall—right into your cereal bowl.
Then what happens? Once you've exhausted all your sad-face emojis and alerted your Twitter followers to how unfair life is, you'll still have to find a way to get through whatever puddles life has put in your path. You have to figure out a way, in the words of "Carrion Comfort," to "not choose not to be."
We admit it—sometimes finding a way to keep going in the face of a struggle can be as difficult as unraveling a double negative in a Hopkins poem. But even so, there is value in the very experience of enduring and overcoming that struggle. Take it from someone on the other side of the bad times, like the speaker of "Carrion Comfort."
After coming through his own bout of despair, he's not only stronger and more appreciative; he actually has a better understanding of his own relationship to God. So, he's got that going for him. And even if you're not a religious person, you can take comfort that this awful, no-good, deep, dark depression has transformed the speaker into a better version of his former self. He's more resilient, more in touch with his values, and more confident in his inner strength.
So keep this poem handy for a rainy day. Just when the clouds seem darkest, take it out and give it a read. It may not bring the sun out immediately, but it'll show you a silver lining or two. That massive bummer might just be the way to a better you.
Explor-ian the Victorians
Cheer up—the Victorian Web is here to drop all manner of Hopkins-related science on you.
Lost? Try the Found(ation)
The Poetry Foundation offers up tons of links to Hopkins' work and related articles.
Poets.org has another helpful introduction to Hopkins and his work.
A Wizard of Oz
Here's a very excitable Australian's rendition of the poem.
Sure it's over-acted, but the backdrop of the city at night is pretty neat.
This Poetry Foundation entry lets you listen while you read along.
Oh, Tom O'Bedlam
Say what you want, but this guy's got some serious poetry pipes.
Thoughts that Make You Go "Hmm"
Does Hopkins look depressed to you here, or just lost in thought?
Here he is in later life, looking a bit worse for the wear.
"Back to Basics"
Dig this New Yorker article, subtitled "How Gerard Manley Hopkins remade English poetry."
Poems and Prose
It's not all depressing stuff, but don't take our word for it. Get the full collection right here.