Commentary on Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord

Hopkins is asking God why he, as his servant, does not seem to be achieving anything in life, whilst even the most dissolute people seem to get somewhere, and Nature, God's creation, is productive and full of new life.Jeremiah

The form of the sonnet is a complaint to God. Such complaints are not so unusual among even devoutly religious people. Hopkins quotes the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, in the Latin Bible (or Vulgate) form the Roman Catholic church traditionally used. The actual quotation is from Jeremiah 12:1, though interestingly Hopkins only quotes the first three lines of the original. The AV reads:

‘Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper….?'

whilst the NIV has it as:

‘You are always righteous, O Lord,/ when I bring a case before you./ Yet I would speak with you about your justice:/ Why does the way of the wicked prosper?'

The fourth line, which in a modern English translation reads: ‘Why do all who are treacherous thrive?' paralleling the third line, in Hopkins' sonnet is changed to a much more personal note, ‘and why must/ Disappointment all I endeavour end?'

So unlike Jeremiah, who is apparently concerned in a more general way with the age-old problem of why evil people seem to get on in life, while the good, decent hard-working don't, Hopkins makes the complaint more personal: ‘Why don't I get on?' However, if we read back in Jeremiah into chapter 11, we shall see there, too, that Jeremiah is personally involved: his own fellow townspeople had been plotting to kill him, and he complains: ‘Because the Lord revealed their plot to me, I knew it….I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.' (Jeremiah 11:19 NIV).

There are other complaints in the Bible, too. Psalm 22 is one of the most famous, briefly quoted by Jesus on the cross when he cried out:

‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (Matthew 27:46 = Mark 15:34 = Psalms 22:1 KJV)

The Christian poet, John Milton, who had just gone blind, also asks God in ‘On His Blindness', another sonnet Hopkins would certainly have known: ‘How can I serve you when I am blind?' But the Psalms also suggest it is futile to worry about the wicked. In Psalms 37:2, the Psalmist can say

‘for like the grass they will soon wither;/ like green plants they will soon die away' (NIV)

using the same imagery of nature that Hopkins (and Jeremiah) use.

Investigating Thou Art Indeed Just
  • Complaints can be statements or questions. Locate the actual complaints Hopkins makes.
    • Are they statements of facts, or questions?
    • Is he expecting a reply, do you think?
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