Carrion Comfort Summary
The speaker starts this poem off by declaring that he's not going to give in to "Despair," a force that he labels "carrion comfort." He may be down and out, and the inner strands of his being may have gone slack, but he refuses to quit. He says that he can keep going. He's not going to end it all by killing himself (whew).
Still, he'd really like to know why a giant, crushing force like despair would be so rude as to smash him with its terrible power and subject him to violent storms. All he wants to do is make a break for it and get away from despair's awful influence.
The speaker doesn't wait around too long for an answer to his question, though. He's got a guess: despair is not crushing him; it's changing him—and for the better. By surviving his struggle with this awful force, the speaker's heart has grown stronger and more joyful.
Still, he's not sure where he should send the thank-you cards. Should he cheer for God for putting him through all this difficulty? Should he cheer for himself for surviving it all? Maybe both he and God are equally awesome in this scenario. Rather than coming to a clear decision, the speaker wraps things up by looking back at the "now done darkness" of his depression. He realizes that, not only was he struggling to overcome that crushing sadness, but he was also wrestling with God.
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
- Our speaker starts off with a message. He (and we're just assuming it's a he at this point—check out "Speaker" for more) is talking to…Despair.
- That sounds to us like a pretty one-way conversation. After all, it's not like Despair is going to be talking back, right? Addressing an abstract concept like this is called an apostrophe.
- So what's he saying? Well, he's basically letting Despair know that he won't "feast" on it. That sounds like good news for ol' Despair.
- Really, though, this is a metaphor for being bummed out. To "feast," or consume, a bunch of bad feelings like despair is to wallow in misery, to lose hope. The speaker won't be doing that, he says.
- He also calls despair "carrion comfort." Since this is the poem's title, it seems like we should say a bit more about this endearing nickname. "Carrion" just means something that has died, typically an animal. To connect that to the speaker's idea of feasting, we'll point out that carrion is something a vulture or some other scavenger might eat. It's pretty gross, we know, but that's a vulture for you.
- Now then, how can carrion be a "comfort" to anyone (other than, you know, a vulture)? This juxtaposition is designed to grab our attention, but also to highlight how allowing yourself to be depressed is metaphorically like chowing down on something that's rotten and stinky.
- We say more about this figurative language over in "What's Up With the Title?" For now, just know that our speaker's not giving in to his sadness.
- He makes the same point in line 2 when, with another metaphor, he declares that he's not going to "untwist […] these last strands of man," even though those strands in him have gone "slack," or loose.
- Man, it seems like our speaker is really about to come apart (according to this metaphor anyway), but he's not beaten yet.
- He goes on to say that, even though he's totally beat ("most weary"), you won't be hearing him holler "I give up. I can't do it any more."
- Instead, he affirms that he can keep going, even though things are pretty rough for him right now.
- Good for you, buddy—keep fighting the good fight.
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 bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
- But what, exactly, can the speaker keep doing? He says that can do…"something," but then he gets a bit more specific (luckily for us).
- He can "hope" and "wish," which is definitely something. When day comes (presumably after a dark and difficult night), the imagery is totally fitting with the speaker's decision to "not choose not to be."
- Now, we know that your English teachers have always taught you to avoid a double negative, but since this is Gerard Manley Hopkins here, we'll let it slide. "Not choose not to be" really means choosing to be, to live, to exist, to keep on carrying on. In other words, he's not going to commit suicide. The speaker reiterates his desire to keep fighting through despair.
- It's tough going, though. The speaker gets back to some apostrophe again in line 5, when he addresses "O thou terrible." Here, he's likely talking to Despair again, though he could also be talking to whomever is causing his suffering (i.e., God or Satan). It's not totally clear yet.
- Whomever he's talking to, the speaker wants some answers. Why would this force so rudely ("rude on me") bring its powerful, world-shaking ("wring-world") right foot down on him, which feels like some kind of giant rock pressing down?
- In this admittedly tricky turn of phrase, the speaker's using personification to describe Despair as a kind of giant, all-powerful force, able to crush him like a wee bug.
- Then the speaker gets more specific. It's not just a faceless monster. Thanks to another metaphor, we learn that Despair is actually a huge lion (its foot is a powerful "lionlimb"). This beast looks over the speaker's broken body like it's good enough to eat.
- This description sounds a bit like the Bible's description of the devil as a hungry lion in the Book of Peter. This Despair sure sounds like a nasty adversary.
- And if that wasn't enough, it also sends violent storms ("fan/ O in turns of tempest") to torture our poor speaker, who would really like to just get out of there and run away, thank you very much.
- Before we can flee with him to the second stanza, though, we'll just note that we have some pretty consistent end rhyme going on in these first eight lines. For the scoop on how this poem is put together, be sure to check out "Form and Meter."
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, chéer.
- The second stanza starts off with a familiar question: "Why?" The speaker still wants to know why he's being tortured by Despair.
- As it turns out, though, he has a theory about that. All this suffering was so that "my chaff might fly." That sounds painful, but really he's just using another metaphor to describe himself as a stalk of corn or wheat. The chaff is the inedible part of the plant that covers the seeds. It's what you need to get rid of to get to the good stuff. (Hence the old saying "separate the wheat from the chaff," which means to get rid of the bad elements to leave only the good ones.)
- Here, then, the speaker sees his troubles as allowing his "grain"—the good parts of himself—to shine through "sheer and clear." This is essentially just a complex way of saying "that which doesn't kill me makes me stronger," and so the speaker sees himself as better off for having gone through all these troubles.
- In fact, he continues, all those hard times—which he describes as difficult work ("toil") and something twisted ("coil")—allowed him to "kiss the rod/ Hand rather."
- So is this guy just a big fan of fishing? Not exactly—a rod in this context isn't used for hooking fish; it's used for whacking folks who misbehave. The old expression was "spare the rod and spoil the child," meaning that harsh discipline (even beating with sticks) was needed to properly raise children to be productive members of society.
- To kiss the rod, then, or the hand that holds that rod (as the speaker corrects himself in line 11), is to be grateful for this kind of harsh instruction. Again, we're not told who in this metaphor was the one holding the rod, but God seems like a fairly safe guess at this point, given Hopkins' religious background (check out "In a Nutshell" for more).
- So the speaker is now happy that he has endured this suffering. That's because, in the process, his heart was able to gain strength ("lapped" just means drank plentifully), steal joy (since, you know, it can be hard to be happy amid despair), and even—thanks to more personification—"laugh" and "cheer."
- In short, the speaker feels that he's better off for having gone through the awfulness of having a huge metaphorical lionbeast pin him down and look him over as if he were a zebra chop. So, maybe things are looking up for the guy.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
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.
- In these final lines, we're hit with one last question. For whom should the speaker's personified heart be cheering?
- One the one hand, it could be cheering for "the hero" who thrust the speaker into despair in the first place. The speaker describes that kind of powerful influence as "heaven-handling," which suggests that God might be the one responsible for metaphorically trampling ("foot trod") him, putting the speaker through all his trials and tribulations.
- On the other hand, the heart could be cheering for the speaker himself. After all, he's the one who struggled with, and overcame, despair ("fought him") in the first place.
- Or, perhaps there is a third option. Maybe the speaker's heart should be cheering for both God and the speaker ("is it each one?"). Maybe both are needed in this scenario: God to send the speaker into despair, but the speaker to struggle his way out of it.
- The speaker never comes to a full resolution (we're going to go with option C, though). Instead, he closes by looking back on a night, and then a whole year, of struggle—that's quite a battle.
- In doing so, the speaker reveals that he has put these depressing days behind him, calling them "now done darkness." And he also comes to a realization. When he was struggling through his depression in his lowly state (a "wretch"), the speaker was not just struggling with Despair. He was also "wrestling with (my God!) my God."
- The exclamation point in the parenthetical note here suggests that this is news to the speaker. All this time, it seems, the speaker thought he was just battling his way through depression.
- Now that's he's come through that difficult experience, though, he realizes that he was actually being given a test (or a lesson, if you want to go back to the "rod" mentioned in line 10) by God.
- The good news for the speaker, then, is that he passed. And now he's better off for the experience.
- Now, rush right out and thank all your teachers for giving you tests and plunging you into despair.