Here's a game you can play at home, Shmoopers. Take three tennis balls, your favorite sneakers, an air raid siren, and a handful of rocks and toss them into a dryer. Turn it on full speed and have a listen. What you'll hear is close—but not quite—to the number of sounds happening in a typical Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. "Carrion Comfort" is no exception, so make sure that your ears are properly prepared for the sonic smorgasbord that follows.
To start with, we have lots of lovely alliteration going on here, starting with the poem's title and in the very first line: "carrion comfort." That hard C alliteration pops up again in line 3, along with some repeated M words tossed in for good measure: "In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can."
Hopkins is just getting warmed up, though. As well as alliteration, we have consonance, as in all the S sounds happening in line 2: "Not untwist — slack they may be—these last strands of man." We get more of the S-centric sonic sideshow in line 10: "since (seems) I kissed the rod."
And have we mentioned the assonance? Check out the repeating short A sound at the end of line 2: "last strands of man." There are also plenty of long E sounds to go around in line 8: "O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?"
In the mood for internal rhyme? This poem has you covered. "Fly" and "lie," as well as "sheer and clear," provide that in line 9: "Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear." And both "toil" and "coil" are embedded within line 10: "Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod." Hopkins even sneaks "though" and "hero" together, as in line 12: "Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot trod."
Of course, these are just a mere sampling of the poem's sonic echoes. You can spend hours finding more examples, and you totally should. For now, though, we'll add one more important technique to the list: anaphora. Repeating phrases like "I can" in line 3, or "my God" in line 14, gives us a feeling of a speaker who is repeating himself out loud in an attempt to solve a problem. He keeps going back to stock words (just count all the "not"s in the first two lines) and phrases in order to figure out just why he's gone through the trials and tribulations of despair.
In fact, you can say that all of the sound games that Hopkins plays in "Carrion Comfort" go back to his stated goal of making his poems sound as much like natural human speech as possible (check out "Form and Meter" for more). We're not just readers of this poem, then; we're listeners. And what we hear is someone who is talking to himself and talking through his recent bout of depression. We know, by the poem's end, that he's come through the experience a stronger and happier version of himself, so all these sonic flourishes seem appropriate to a guy whose mood, at long last, is a happy one.
Over in the stanza-by-stanza summaries, we point out how the phrase "carrion comfort" (1) acts like a kind of hook, a jarring juxtaposition that, right off the bat, grabs us readers by our jean jackets and lets us know that this is no ordinary trip to Bummersville.
This two-word phrase, however, is a whole lot more than just an attention-grabber. As the title of the poem, it's actually a densely packed box of poetic techniques that tells us a whole lot about the speaker and his predicament. Let's open it up, then, and take a peek at what's inside:
To start with, we have an oxymoron here. How can something like a dead, stinky animal ("carrion") be even remotely comforting? Unless you're a vulture, carrion is pretty much the opposite of appealing. So what's this contradiction doing in the poem? To find that answer, we have to dig a bit deeper.
That's because beneath this oxymoron lies a metaphor. The idea of being comforted by something dead and rotten is used here to describe the speaker's view of wallowing in his own misery. Sure, despair is no fun. And when it strikes it can be tempting just to sit there, feeling sad and sorry for yourself. The choice of the word "comfort" indicates that the speaker (and Hopkins through him) understands that much. At the same time, giving into those feelings—in his view—is like cuddling up to a fly-ridden carcass. It's a kind of morbid obsession that's as distasteful as it is unproductive.
In that way, then, the title announces—in no uncertain terms—just what the speaker is rejecting. "Carrion comfort" is a stand-in for despair, and you can have 'em both, he says. He's moving on with his life, and putting those stinky, rotten feelings behind him.
This poem features a giant lion's paw pressing down on someone like a huge boulder, so we'd forgive you if you thought the setting was a Voltron cartoon. With that imaginative bit of personification aside, though, most of what happens in "Carrion Comfort" involves the speaker speaking to…himself.
In that way, the setting's probably best understood as a personal, internal one. After all, the speaker has just come through what sounds like a pretty intense bout of despair, the depths of which can only really be found in his own mind. By the same token, the speaker is questioning God about why he's had to go through such a prolonged trip to Bummersville. That kind of spiritual questioning—even if it's spoken out loud—is the kind of stuff reserved for an internal struggle. So think of this poem as a kind of early version of Inside Out.
"Why me?" Who hasn't gazed up at the heavens and asked that question in a fit of despair? Whether it's facing down a pop quiz or getting dumped the night before prom, it can feel sometimes that the world is conspiring against you. Most of us, though, don't do much follow up. It's more of a rhetorical question that's meant to say "my life just really sucks right now."
The speaker of "Carrion Comfort" isn't content, though, to let the question drop. In fact, this whole poem is his way of figuring out an answer to that "Why me?" question. And the great thing is that, by wrestling with this question a bit, he actually comes to a satisfying answer (satisfying to him, at least).
Before he gets to that answer, though, he has to give himself a pep talk. In the first stanza, the speaker asserts his determination not to give in to despair and end it all. We get a sense of that determination through the sheer number of times he says that word "not" in the first two lines (four, to be exact). This kind of repetition makes him seem like more than just a person who's run out of ways to say something. Instead, he's repeating "not" to himself almost as if he were trying to convince himself to keep going. (Think of the way the Little Engine that Could talked to himself: "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can, etc.")
By the time we get to the second stanza, then, the speaker is moving forward, looking for answers. He realizes that his struggles have left him stronger for the experience. Metaphorically, he's become like a tasty crop, with all the bad, useless bits stripped away: "That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear" (9). He also realizes that his road to self-improvement has been about more than just him. It's been a spiritual quest: "I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God" (14).
That parenthetical note—"(my God!)"—is really telling. The exclamation mark indicates genuine surprise on the speaker's part, as if he's just stumbled onto a profound realization: his despair has tested his faith in God, and now it's that much stronger. In that way, this poem has not taken the typical form in which a poet has a "deep thought" and then lays it out for her reader. In this case, we have a speaker who has been thinking through the poem, trying to piece together why bad things have happened to him. At the end of the poem, he has his answer—and so do we.
Hopkins is a poet who leads you down a winding road of twisting syntax, but his subject matter is far more straightforward. Once you've sorted out how he's saying what he's saying, what he's actually saying will feel like a downhill run.
The best way to spot a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem is to lend it an ear. When you do, you'll hear a densely-packed soundscape, filled with rhythmic variations and sonic effects. Just take a listen to "Pied Beauty," "The Windhover," and "Spring and Fall" for more examples of Hopkins' sounds in action.
As we mentioned over in the "In a Nutshell" section, "Carrion Comfort" is one of a group of Hopkins' poems known collectively as the "terrible sonnets." Given that, it would be pretty weird if this poem were written in a form other than a sonnet. (Of course, it's also a little weird that "terrible" refers to the subject matter of Hopkins' depression, not the quality of the poems themselves.)
Specifically, what we have here is a Petrarchan sonnet, which features a rhyme scheme that reads ABBAABBA CDCDCD, where each letter is that line's end rhyme. Petrarchan sonnets typically consist of an eight-line stanza known as an octave, followed by a six-line stanza called the sestet.
The octave in a Petrarchan sonnet typically acts as the set-up for the poem's investigation, while the sestet includes a "volta," or turn, starting in line 9 and advancing a comment on that set-up that carries forward to the end of the poem. In the case of "Carrion Comfort," the speaker details the horrors of his despair in the octet, but then in the final sestet he turns to contemplate why he had those awful experiences to begin with.
Form and rhyme-wise, then, this poem is fairly straightforward. And then you get to the meter.
Typically, Petrarchan sonnets are consistent when it comes to their rhythmic patterns, but Hopkins was not big on consistency. Instead, he favored something he called a "sprung rhythm," which was his attempt to mimic the more natural patterns of human speech. To do that, he liked to put the stress on the first word of a line and also vary the number and consistency of his metrical feet.
As a result, a Hopkins poem can feel all over the place in terms of its meter. Just try to find a pattern in this line:
In me , most weary, cry I can no more. I can; (3)
Also, note the accent over the word "ór." Hopkins used these accent marks to indicate words that should be stressed. He clearly thought long and hard about how to make each line sound as natural to human speech as possible. So, even though he was using a time-tested form in the Petrarchan sonnet, Hopkins made sure he put his unique rhythmic spin on things, which explains why a lot of readers get dizzy after they read his work.
When dealing with abstract concepts like despair and depression, it can be tricky to really get your point across to a reader. How does it feel to be depressed? "Bad" or "sad" just isn't quite going to cut it. How about, "like a monstrous lion pinning me down with its terrible paw"? Ahh, that's more like it. Thanks to the wonders of personification, then, Hopkins is able to communicate the depths of his mental anguish in a way that's more recognizable, though also more awful, for us readers.
We do get some wrestling going on in this poem, but it's the spiritual kind—nothing sexy to see here, folks.