Night, the dark night of the soul

Desolation of the spirit

This is the main theme running through the so-called ‘Terrible Sonnets' of the period 1885-1886, whilst Hopkins was in Ireland.

The term ‘The dark night of the soul' is a technical one, being a state of being that many mystics and spiritual advisers have recognised and even documented. The founder of the Jesuits himself, St. Ignatius Loyola wrote a section of his Spiritual Exercises on it, too, though he called it ‘desolation'.

It is important to remember, however, that Hopkins gave it none of these names, though he would have been aware of Ignatius' description of the symptoms and of his advised remedy.

Does God care?

  • Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves has often been described as the least Christian, most pagan, of Hopkins' poem. The sense of God seems entirely absent. The last line particularly portrays mental and emotional despair, self-accusation and pain dramatically
  • Carrion Comfort recognises that such suffering may have some purpose: ‘That my chaff might fly' in God's scheme of things
  • however, on the whole, Hopkins is in a conflict situation with God. Though we can discuss the exact nature of the conflict, it would seem to lie in the area of submission to God's will. Hopkins felt God had sent him to Ireland to do what he considered rather meaningless academic chores in an unsympathetic environment
  • it has to be a possibility that Hopkins would have gone through such an experience anyway, whatever his circumstances. In other words, it cannot really be said that it was only due to his Irish experience.

Internal bitterness

The poem I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark describes the situation just mentioned, but then goes on to describe the inner bitterness such a conflict with God produces. Hopkins' unregenerate nature fights hard, but this leaves a bitterness of spirit, which state of being he recognises as being the permanent state of those who have never submitted to God.

In My Own Heart, this intense inwardness is alleviated, by Hopkins telling himself to leave God to act in sovereignty and to stop dwelling obsessively on the outcomes. If he can do this, he realises, he may actually feel some joy.

Spiritual despair or depression?

There are several other poems which could be included under this theme, such as No Worst, there is None, or Patience, Hard Thing. It needs to be recognised, however, that in their own terms, they could equally well be describing a state of deep emotional depression, rather than a spiritual state of being. There are some critics who argue that all the dark sonnets are about deep depression, and not about the ‘dark night' at all, though they are in the minority.

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