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.