Commentary on Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves

Darkness and death

The poem's central image is that of the darkening evening ushering in the night, which symbolises death, and, therefore, God's judgement. But it also symbolises the ‘dark night of the soul', and the last line of the poem focuses our attention on that, rather than on a statement about judgement.

A prophecy of judgment

SibylA sense of a final judgement is conveyed in the Catholic mass for the dead, the requiem, in a section called the Dies Irae, meaning ‘The Day of Wrath'. It begins, ‘As David and the Sibyl testify...', an interesting combination of biblical and pagan characters. The Sibyl was a prophetess in Greek mythology. This sense of both biblical and pagan ideas of judgement permeates the whole of Hopkins' poem.

More on the Sibyl: Hopkins may be referring to the Sibyl of Cumae, a prophetess of Apollo, the Greek god associated with prophecy and poetry. Messages would appear written on leaves, which would then disintegrate as soon as read by the Sibyl. In the Latin epic The Aeneid by Virgil, the Sibyl conducts the hero, Aeneas, into the Underworld. In the poem, the dead of the Underworld also have prophetic powers, as well as being judged for their earthly lives.

The darkening sky

The octave divides into two parts: the first four lines describe the evening sky, the second four lines the earth, with its colours fading into darkness.

  • The sky is seen as huge: ‘vaulty, voluminous' - Hopkins gives us a string of epithets in the first two lines, climaxing in the compounds ‘womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all', representing the three stages of human life: birth, life and death.
  • Although the stars appear, their light is insufficient to keep earth's ‘dapple', which is ‘at an end'.
    • Hopkins' line ‘Glory be to God for dappled things' (Pied Beauty), helps us to understand the joy he felt in the great variation of light and shade in nature. Now all this is being swallowed up by the night
    • this becomes a metaphor for his own joy in life being swallowed up, to the extent that as evening becomes night, he cries out: ‘our night whelms, whelms, and will end us.'

The doom of division

The sestet expresses the thought that, for all nature's variety, in the end judgement is only expressed in two terms. In biblical thought, there is the main Heaven / Hell terminology for this, but Hopkins refrains from using this, instead referring to the ‘two flocks, two folds' image of the sheep and the goats, as in:

‘And he shall set the sheep on his right hand but the goats on his left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father….' (Matthew 25:33-34)

He uses other images of twos as well. Such reductionism he finds devastating, and, in the last line, the depth of his own despair at this is suddenly revealed in ‘thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.' There is, in other words, no resolution in the sestet at all, only a worsening of his mental anguish.

Investigating Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves
  • List the words that create the scale of the evening sky.
  • Collect the images which suggest the reduction to twos
  • There is a dialogue going on.
    • Who with?
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