Poet's Pick April 16
Gerard Manley Hopkins: "My own heart"
Selected by Henri Cole
National Poetry Month 2012

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Henri Cole's Poetry Month Pick, April 16, 2012

"My own heart"
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

* Henri Cole Comments:
Late in his life (between 1885-89), when Hopkins was between 41 and 45, he wrote a series of sonnets that are—for me—his crowning achievement.  These poems, known as the “desolation” sonnets, were written in Dublin, where Hopkins, a Jesuit and a classics professor, felt estranged and far from home.

“My own heart” is one of these sonnets and seems to employ two voices:  in the first, which we hear in the octave, the tormented mind describes what it’s like amidst the turmoil of the speaker’s mind.  In lines 3-4, the words tormented and tormenting are repeated in quick succession three times.  To paraphrase Hopkins, he is saying, ‘I cast around for comfort but can no more find it by groping around in this comfortless world than blind eyes can find light in the sunshine or thirst can be quenched in a world of wet.’  It’s the old ‘water, water everywhere, but nothing to drink’ feeling.

And in stanza two, he describes himself as a “Jackself” and “jaded”.  By Jackself, he means simply his everyday being.  And jaded is a word that Hopkins uses often in his letters:  “I am always tired, always jaded,” he complains to a close friend. 

This is a negative, tightly controlled, self-absorbed sonnet.  But in the sestet, a remedy for Hopkins’ intense, inward bleakness seems to present itself with a more rational, unharrassed mind speaking.  Using a metaphor made of mountains and sky, Hopkins seems to say to himself that he has suffered enough and that he is tired of so many black hours.  Let comfort come through, he tells to his Jackself—comfort that is like sunlight falling thru a valley, changing those parts it touches.

If you’re writing a poem about grief, a sonnet forces you to be economical.  It only gives you one or two breaths to create a little plot, and you don’t have to make any grand conclusion.  After all, the word “sonnet” comes from the diminutive of son, from Latin sonus, meaning “sound,” so the sonnet makes a little sound.  Here I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s preference for “grimness” over “groaning” in poetry, because the sonnet form is keeping Hopkins, whom she loved, from groaning.

About Henri Cole:
Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan, and was raised in Virginia. The recipient of many awards, he is the author, most recently, of Pierce the Skin (2010); Blackbird and Wolf(2007); Middle Earth (2003), a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and The Visible Man (1998), all from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. On April 4, 2012, it was announced that he had won the sixth annual Jackson Poetry Prize, a $50,000 prize is given annually to honor an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition.

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