Themes / Imagery and symbolism in St. Alphonsus Rodriguez

Honour – visible and invisible

The octave divides neatly into two quatrains. The first recounts the usual mode of celebrating people: ‘Honour is flashed off exploit'. Hopkins' references to ‘strokes', ‘gashed flesh', ‘fighter, forge his glorious day' indicate external military celebrity.

The second quatrain deals with the renown of martyrdom, and of Christ himself, whose struggles to obey God regardless of the cost were internal and therefore invisible. Nevertheless, though invisible, spiritual warfare is regarded by Hopkins as very real and its victors usually worthy of the honour they receive: ‘on the martyr may'.

Drama and stillness

The tension comes in the sestet. Hopkins turns to how God seems to act:

  • As Creator, he appears to do huge feats - ‘hews mountains' - on the one hand; on the other, minute, almost unnoticeable ones - ‘with trickling increment / Veins violets'. (Here Hopkins is perhaps referring to the debate about the theory of evolution which was challenging traditional Christian understanding: for Hopkins, everything was still under God's control.)
  • So with the life of Christ: on the one hand there were, ‘Those years and years by of world without event', referring either to the historical period before Christ's birth, where 400 years had passed without a significant prophet, or to the first 30 years of Christ's own life where there is hardly anything recorded of him. On the other hand, ‘(God) Could crowd career with conquest', in Christ's short life or short ministry.

It is as though God's timescale and scale of operations is quite different from human expectations.

Humility honoured

So the question is raised: are those periods of apparent inactivity worthless? The canonisation of Alfonso gives Hopkins hope that human insignificance is not insignificant to God. And now the church has finally been able to see the divine worth of such an apparently humble life, a conclusion earlier Christian poets such as John Milton, in Lycidas, and George Herbert, in The Collar, had also struggled towards.

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