The poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins considered the internal spiritual battle to submit the individual will to God’s will as the most painful yet significant struggle for having the most at stake. Defeat means the loss of hope and any chance of joy; victory means the securance of eternal redemptive bliss. Hopkins was also painfully aware in all of his poetry that victory comes only after a lifetime of suffering. Therefore, his poetry could only ever portray the soul in the midst of battle, with at best a hope of future victory, and never the soul perfectly at rest with the joy of victory. Hopkins was ever a poet of patience, therefore, writing with brutal honesty of the actual state of his soul, and never neglecting the expression of present vulnerability for future, not yet experienced joy. “Carrion Comfort” is a poem that pertains entirely to the spiritual struggle, not as a past battle won, but as an ongoing struggle concerning the past, present, and future. The poem reads:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;

Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man

In me or, 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.

The poem begins as a struggle of the will to persevere against despair. Firstly, the speaker must master his will enough to resist the annihilation which is despair: “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee” (1). Each “not” in the first quatrain is so heavily stressed that its very sound relates the deliberateness and effort of the will to master itself. By the end of the quatrain, the speaker has gained the ability to “not choose not to be” but can at best only negatively affirm his existence (4). He is not yet capable of uttering complete syntactic sentences, stating, “Can something, hope, wish day come” (4). However, if he can “hope” and has truly resisted surrendering to “Despair,” then a more affirmative and purposeful existence is at least possible.

The second quatrain converts the image of the speaker as eater of despair to a passive image of the speaker being eaten, or at least tormented, by the “devouring eyes” (7) of the “terrible” one (5). He is no longer the actor, and seems suddenly helpless, subjected to the actions of “thou terrible” (5). However, these actions, “rock,” “lay,” “scan,” and “fan,” are not merely actions of violence with no further purpose (6-7). They are all continuous actions that do not end in destruction. “Rock” and “lay” can be both violent and gentle. For now, all that the speaker perceives is the terrifying power of the “wring-earth right foot” and “lionlimb,” but the power is not destructive (6). In fact, it seems there is a purpose beyond the speaker’s present pain, for “fan” is a productive action. The quatrain ends with an image of productivity, of separating wheat from chaff, that still emphasizes the vulnerability of the speaker, but leads directly into the revelation of the sestet.

The purpose of the image of winnowing and of all the violence of the first eight lines (or octave) is immediately answered in the final six lines (or sestet): “Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear” (9). Because Hopkins understands the struggle of this poem to be an ongoing, lifelong struggle, the revelation comes in the midst of the struggle, and the truth which was concealed in the octave is suddenly revealed in the sestet. Suffering leads to purgation when it is offered to God, whose “rod” (10) or “hand rather” (11) the speaker has kissed. The phrase “since (seems) I kissed the rod” implies that the speaker has submitted almost unconsciously to God in all of his suffering (10). Only now is he consciously realizing the purpose of his suffering, as well as the imperfection of his submission to God. He can only “[lap] strength” and “[steal] joy,” as he is utterly dependent on the one from whom strength and joy come (11). Perfect strength and joy will come only after perfect submission, which requires a lifetime of suffering.

In the final tercet, the speaker is no longer engaged in a war with just himself, the war of the self to “not choose not to be” (4). He has won that battle by resisting despair, and is engaged in a new and greater battle, a battle with something outside of himself. He is again struggling with his will, as he did in the first quatrain, but now the struggle is to answer the question, “Cheer whom though?” and to know the “who” of the battle to be not just himself, but also God (12). He answers the question “Cheer whom though?” at first indirectly, with further questions, exclaiming, “O which one? is it each one?” (13). Although these questions do not provide a direct response to the first question, they relate the immediacy of the revelation. The speaker only now understands all of his past suffering and current suffering as a struggle between himself and God for the purpose of purgation.

Finally, in the last line, the speaker identifies himself with Christ by uttering the same words that Christ uttered on the cross, “my God, my God,” and therefore uniting his suffering to the suffering of Christ. As Christ’s victory came through opposition and death, the speaker of the poem now recognizes that purgation comes through suffering and that suffering brings the victory of Christ. The past night “of now done darkness” is transformed by the present revelation, which the parenthetical “my God!” renders so immediate (14). Past and present sufferings are united as one continuous struggle towards future victory. While still “wrestling” with God, the speaker has not totally submitted his will, but he is actively and consciously engaged in the ongoing struggle to submit it, so that come death, he can secure eternal joy and union with God (14).