Poet's Pick April 16
Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Felix Randal"
Selected by Ciaran Berry
National Poetry Month 2014

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Ciaran Berry's Poetry Month Pick, April 16, 2014

"Felix Randal"
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!


* Ciaran Berry Comments:
Described by George Orwell as the best short poem in the language, you can't help but be hooked by the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Felix Randal." The nine-word question that kicks off the poem certainly grips. "Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then?" the speaker asks of the unnamed, un-described other who has, it seems, just brought word of this fresh loss to the speaker's door. Who wouldn't want to read on as Hopkins's poet-priest weighs that loss in a language that veers thrillingly between the spoken and the highly wrought, the formal and the deeply personal.

Written in sprung rhythm, the line here becomes a supple and capable instrument that allows the poet to blend those very conversational and very musical registers, even as he strings them across the sonnet form. There are those moments of dense alliterative music that are Hopkins's hallmark, moments like "fatal four disorders, fleshed" and "mould of man, big-boned," and those moments of a full-on or a more subtle internal rhyme, such as "cursed/first," "grey/dray," "sweet/reprieve," "God/road," as well as, of course, the poem's carefully structured series of end rhymes. But there's also, within all the musical play, the sense of a human voice caught speaking, of the poem as an act of overhearing as we, the readers, receive it.

This comes across throughout, but particularly as we move past the volta into the second and third line of the first tercet. How anyone could have considered this poem cold, or too caught up in notions of priestly duty, despite this moment of raw, ragged grief is beyond me. The level of sentiment and sudden candor here is so striking, so full a turn from the more formal, ritualized grieving of the previous stanza. Here we see the priest become just another man beginning to wrestle with his sense of loss ("My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears/Thy tears that touched my heart"), where as at the end of the previous quatrain we see the priest saying the things he's been trained to say ("God rest him all road ever he offended") and more restrainedly revealing his interactions with the deceased ("I had our sweet reprieve and ransom/Tendered to him").

Though written in Liverpool, where Hopkins served as a parish priest in the 1880s, and a place of which he said “there is merit in it but little muse,” the poem at times reads very Irish to my ear. The things the priest says in particular ("Being anointed and all"; "God rest him...") have a quality of restrained, ritualized grief familiar to me from the small towns I grew up in, where the beginning of loss was a series of set things that needed to be said, and in public, about the deceased in order to make room for the more particular and personal aspects of the process.

And then, of course, there's that stunning last line, and that strange last word "sandal" in which W.H. Gardner senses "hooves, lightning-shod, beating aerially the golden macadam of some translunary paradise." I wouldn't go that far, but there's a real sense of lift in the meter and the diction as it moves towards the end of the line, and the end of the poem here, the shift from gutturals ("great grey") to plosives ("bright and battering"), the stresses clustered together and then opening out, clustered together again and opening out again, as they push towards that last word, which comes as a great surprise, despite the hints of the rhyme scheme. And there is also, of course, the fact that, as Vona Groake says, brilliantly, of John Montague's "Forge," "it's not every poet who can back a Clydesdale into a poem."

About Ciaran Berry:
Ciaran Berry was born in Dublin in 1971 and grew up in Carna, County Galway, and Falcarragh, County Donegal. He graduated from NYU, a New York Times Fellow, and now teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, where he lives with his family. The Sphere of Birds (2008) won the Crab Orchard Award, the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize, and the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. In 2012 he received a Whiting Writers' Award for poetry.

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