Study Guide

Carrion Comfort What's Up With the Title?

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What's Up With the Title?

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.

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