Imagery and symbolism in Carrion Comfort

Powerful images

The poem is highly imagistic:

  • The title itself is a vivid image, an oxymoron, as ‘carrion' and ‘comfort' have the opposite emotional colouring
  • ‘Feast' furthers the sense of a good thing become grotesque, as we might think of vultures ‘feasting' off a corpse
  • A more conventional image is of the body being knit or stranded together.

The portrayal of God

The personification of God (technically called anthropomorphism) in the second quatrain uses biblical images reserved for God's power:

Usually such power is exerted over God's enemies, but here it is applied against his servant, Hopkins, who then becomes ‘frantic to avoid thee'.

Harvesting the good

At the end of the octave, the imagery anticipates the opening of the sestet, with ‘fan', ‘tempest' and ‘heaped'. In the sestet, this resolves itself into the biblical metaphor of chaff being winnowed away by the ‘tempest', leaving ‘my grain...sheer and clear'. (See Big Ideas > Judgement.) Some of the biblical imagery comes from the burning of the stubble as one way of getting rid of the chaff; the rest deals with letting the wind do it. The idea of a personal cleansing is best captured in John the Baptist's words about Christ:

‘Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor; and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.' (Matthew 3:12, Luke 3:17 AV)


Hopkins uses his imagery metonymically also:

  • ‘right foot', ‘eyes', ‘Hand rather, my heart lo!' refer to parts of the body symbolising attitudes of the whole person
  • ‘Rod' symbolises authority and sovereignty; to kiss the rod is to submit to authority, which is re-enacted literally at a sovereign's coronation.

Wrestling with God

The final image of fighting, specifically wrestling, comes from a famous and mysterious biblical passage where Jacob wrestles with God all night, recorded in Genesis:

‘And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of day ... Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.' (Genesis 32:24-30 AV)

Just as Jacob did not realise he was wrestling with God to start with, so the same surprise seems to come to Hopkins as he exclaims ‘(my God!)', not as a swear-word, which is how many people to-day use the term, but as a real ejaculation of horror and surprise.

The two ‘my God's together then echo Christ's last cry when dying on the cross:

‘Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying.....My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (Matthew 27:46 AV)

For Hopkins to finish on that note is even more dramatic than his opening. He is claiming to share in the desolation of Christ himself.

Investigating Carrion Comfort
  • Can you explain the imagery of l.11?
  • What strikes you as the most dramatic image of the sonnet?


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