Commentary on To Seem the Stranger

Three levels of isolation

In l.9 of this sonnet, Hopkins says he is ‘now at a third/ Remove'. The meaning of the poem is structured round these ‘removes':

  • first remove: from his family by his conversion (ll.2-4) (See Author section: Oxford and Conversion)
  • second remove: from England, since the English will not hear his message (ll.5-8)
  • third remove: to Ireland, a foreign country to him (ll.9-10).

The cost of conversion

In the first remove, Hopkins refers to Christ's words:

‘For I have come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against the mother-in-law ... He that loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-37 AV)

This is the cost of conversion: not so much enmity for Hopkins, who stayed on good terms with his family, but more isolation from them. But the ‘sword and strife' are anticipated by Christ in the previous verse:

‘I came not to send peace, but a sword' (Matthew 10:34 AV) 

English antipathy

In the second remove, Hopkins knows the English will not hear his Roman Catholic message, being so staunchly protestant, so he has given up (‘plead nor do I'):

  • It could presumably also refer to some more political message he wants to give, since English/Irish relations at the time were highly politically charged, perhaps about the suffering of the Irish people
  • There is some evidence for this in ‘where wars are rife', but this could be religious in meaning
  • It could possibly also hint at the fact that the English do not want to read his poems, but then he found the Irish didn't, either!

Isolated love

After the third remove, Hopkins wants to qualify his statement. He does receive, and give ‘kind love'. But his need is greater than that. He wants to utter ‘what word/ Wisest my heart breeds', otherwise he will be like the unprofitable servant who in Christ's parable, went and buried (or hoarded) his money and was condemned for it (Matthew 25:14-30).

Investigating To Seem the Stranger
  • Discuss the meaning of Christ's words about bringing a sword.
  • He doesn't seem to know what is preventing his being heard.
    • What phrases express this?
  • Why is he a ‘began'?
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