I promise, this isn’t going to be a full blog post about a celebrity death you’ve probably read and seen enough about already this week, no matter whether you were grieving or indifferent to the news. But Robin Williams filled the news feed on my social media platter, and probably yours too; and in the wake of the news of his suicide came an echoing rush of posts about depression, suicide prevention, and people generally reaching their hands out into the void to reassure whoever was listening that they were not alone, that someone cares and is ready to help them. It certainly put those topics on my mind—my own experiences with depression and those of people I love, and what I’ve heard and read from people who went to the brink of suicide, even attempted it, and what that experience felt like. So today, even though I’ve put aside WWI for now, it won’t really be a sunshine-and-puppies poem. But it will, I assure you, be a good poem.
You see, I had a long L ride today to the doctor’s office—the cold that knocked me out last Friday (hence no PF post a week ago: my apologies) hung around this week until I had to see if I had strep or something—and I took along for the ride a book I haven’t read in many years. It’s a title I picked off the remainder table in the basement of Village Books in Fairhaven, probably in about 2002, and it was my introduction to one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner. Buechner is one of the nation’s greatest memoirists and essayists, in addition to a very fine novelist, but I haven’t had much call to mention him here. He wrote (as far as I know) no poetry, and his greatest novel, Godric, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize but failed to win (losing to A Confederacy of Dunces, which, when I get there, had better be amazing, because Godric is one of the most moving and wise books I’ve ever read), so I have no real way to mention him here, except by horning him in to this post right now, which I hope you will forgive. In any case, I picked up Buechner’s Speak What We Feel; Not What We Ought To Say, in which he explores, sensitively and with the care of a man who loves words with a passion only exceeded by how much he loves those who write the words, four authors who wrote their way through some of the darkest feelings in their lives. And the four authors he chooses are incomparably talented: G. K. Chesterton (featured on Poetry Friday only a couple of weeks ago), Mark Twain (who needs no introduction), William Shakespeare (ditto), and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Hopkins is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps my favorite poet ever, but I haven’t brought him in here very often—only twice, in fact, in five years of Poetry Fridays (can you believe it’s been five years?). In part that’s because he’s not American and we are America-obsessed here at FP, perhaps too much so. And in part that’s because so much of his work deals with faith and the divine, and while that speaks to me I know it doesn’t to many of you, and I haven’t wanted to push that between us too much since the purpose of these posts is really just to make you love poetry and think about it more often. But I’m going to risk it today, because I think the despair Hopkins wrestled with near the end of his life is universal enough to reach us all, and even when he is expressing himself in terms of his Catholic faith I think he says things that can mean something to anyone, and move them, if they listen. So today we take on one of the “terrible sonnets”, named not because they are poorly written, but because they were birthed amid terror, and there is something terrible and awe-inspiring about how raw and real Hopkins is as he opens up his soul to our eyes. None of them were ever given titles, and I think in some ways it’s because Hopkins was reluctant to give any name to poems, however brief, that spoke such real and fearful truths. This is, then, just a sonnet written in the mid-1880s by a middle-aged Catholic priest who, unknown to him, is only a few years away from dying of typhoid fever:
“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;
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?
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.
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.”
Hopkins has his old demon by the throat, here—too close to be at ease but also strangely in command of himself. Despair, he says, I’m not going to give in to you, not swallow you down like spoiled meat, dead flesh that will rot inside me. I love the repetition of “not” in that first line, three times as though he’s having to shout back an advancing beast, and then even a fourth time to begin the next line as he holds depression at bay. He pushes back against the suicidal impulse to “untwist…these last strands of man”, even referencing a Shakespearean figure by saying he’ll not “cry I can no more” which was the last line of Mark Antony before he commits suicide in Antony and Cleopatra. Hopkins can, he tells despair, but he can do what?
Something, he says, knowing that it’s a near thing here, depression will have him if he can’t stay on his feet, stay agile and avoid the shadows; something, he says, like hope, or wish that dawn would break, or even (here comes that NOT like a swordpoint again) not choose not to be, as though he can turn the “no, not, never” voice of depression in his head, the voice that tells him to give up and give in, somehow against itself, that negativity suddenly negative about the notion of suicide. He is grasping at straws, we know, but we are in his corner, aren’t we, cheering him on because we can see what he sees—that he has the fight in him and despair is starting to show its weak points, the soft hollow in its underbelly where, like Smaug the Magnificent, a keen-eyed blow might bring the monster down.
And then Hopkins wheels, shouting to the heavens now at “thou terrible” because it is God, really, who angers him, God who seems to have bet the house on Despair just when Hopkins thought he stood a chance. Why, he implores to Heaven, would a God who made the Earth his footstool hold a man down when he’s at his lowest, why would the famed “Lion of Judah” slash out with a fierce paw, why do his bones creak and crack as though they are being prepared for a butcher to tear them open and why does the cold wind turn and toss him, fling him from his feet when he would be most ready to run away? Hopkins, a devout man who had profoundly disappointed his family with his conversion to the Catholic Church and his choice of the priesthood, a poet who once burned all the verse he had (up to that point) written because he worried his pride in writing took too much of his attention from God, is saying some of the most awful and true things he can think of about someone he once (in an earlier poem) called his “first, last, friend”. He has been in the den of a predator, deep in the darkness, for who knows how long, and he knows the pad of depression’s clawed feet and the stink of its breath, fresh from some other kill. How, he asks, can he have been so abandoned?
And then the poem turns, even as we wonder how it possibly can, as we ask ourselves what words could come out of that tempest to give Hopkins a fair answer. He looks at his life and sees that the winds have blown clear from him the things that do not matter and never did (this “chaff”), leaving him in possession of the only things he would have wanted to keep. Something turned for him, we realize—out of all that crying into the wind, all those accusations levied against the monstrous figure of a silent and uncaring God, his hand found another hand in the darkness. It was a kingly hand, to be sure—a hand to be kissed, holding a scepter to be kissed as well—but it moved something in him. His heart began to take strength like an animal drinking from a calm pool, and from some unknown storehouse he came away bearing joy with him like a thief, because it can feel that way to find joy after the despair lifts, as though all the happinesses in your life couldn’t possibly have been earned, couldn’t be yours by right, and yet they are there and real and cheerful.
But this is no easy poem, no Precious Moments depiction of depression and Hopkins’ anger at God. Because even as the cheer lifts from his throat, he asks himself who he is cheering for. Is it this strangely doubled divine figure, the heroic hand that both saved him and flung him into the storm? Or is it Hopkins himself, the man who in anger addressed the terrors he knew, despair and divinity both, and called them to account? He wonders if somehow it can be both of them (or if not, which one it could possibly be). He looks back now—and it is back, although we may not have understood it until this very moment—into a year of “now done darkness”, a fight he somehow survived, perhaps even won, and recognizes that in grappling with despair he wrestled also with God, as though he were some Old Testament patriarch. And it shocks him (“my God!”) even as he affirms that it simply was the case (“my God.”) And there the poet ends.
I think it’s one of the more convincing portrayals of depression I’ve read—it rings true for me, anyway. Despair doesn’t lend itself to neat and tidy outcomes, to the “happily ever after” we seek in fairy tales or to the guns-blazing take-out-the-big-bad-guy finish of a big action film. Coming out on the other side is always a struggle, and it leaves its mark—in the case of Hopkins, leaves him still fencing with Despair after the year of darkness ends, leaves him angry with God (while acknowledging God’s critical role in his escape), leaves him uncertain even how he feels about all that’s transpired and whether he should be thrilled by this tough, loud, litigious voice he hears himself flinging back at Heaven. It’s also, I should note, a very convincing portrayal of what faith feels like to those of us inside it—not the cheesy, saccharine anecdotes of some twinkly-eyed minister who claims faith is all about happiness and the easy life (I’m sorry, Joel Osteen, but if you know anything about faith, it sure doesn’t come out anytime you’re on television), but the real battle of contending with an often cruel universe and a God who is certainly not present at all times and in all ways exactly as we would expect God to be. Hopkins’ ambivalence—both about God’s role in his depression and his reclaiming his joy, and more generally about whether or not he sees himself or God as the hero of the piece—is what people who work at faith really experience. He joins a long list of criers into the darkness and the storm, from Job of Uz to Elijah to a Nazarene carpenter and itinerant preacher who cried famously (and desperately) into the darkness from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
I know this won’t all work for all of you. Some of you—and I’m thankful for this—don’t know what it’s like to stare down Depression….not “depression” with a little d, which hits anybody who feels a bit down now and then, but Depression the serious, long-term, often crippling psychological condition. And others of you don’t know what to make of my occasional words about faith, either because you use that word to mean something very different, or you really don’t use it for much at all because it doesn’t mean much to you. I appreciate your reading this far anyway, and listening to Hopkins (and me) ramble on a little about these things that have made us who we became. And for those of you who know one or both of these topics up close and personal, I hope something resonates here, whether it’s a sense of kinship with an experience you recognize, or else perhaps a sudden insight into a side of the experience that you hadn’t considered before. What means most to me about the terrible sonnets, and this one in particular, is that, bleak as they are (another is, I think, much worse than this one, as it’s written before the despair had yet lifted), they helped me see a path out, and understand how to walk it. I discovered Hopkins before Depression found me, and reading him was one of my ways through my year-plus of “now done darkness”. He and I had different experiences in many ways, of course, and expressed it differently, but it was good to have him as a fellow on the journey. I hope Robin Williams had someone like Hopkins for his 63 years, as I expect Depression was an old foe of his and not a recent discovery—I hope you, too, if you face the same enemy, have some good friends at your side. And if you feel you don’t, I hope you know to reach out for hands beside you in the dark, or to call into that wind that seems to blow only in opposition to you: whether it’s me or someone else, I know there’s someone who could take your hand, or call back through the storm, and though that doesn’t complete your journey out it’s the only way I know of to get started.