Stanzas 6-10: A foundation - the purpose of Christ's coming

Stanza 6

This is a transitional stanza, moving from Hopkins' personal experiences to the laying of a theological foundation for the theodicy needed for understanding the shipwreck. It is a complex philosophic argument, requiring a good number of re-readings of the stanza. It is always difficult being faced with a ‘not' to begin with: if it is not this or that, then what is it? We are kept waiting, having to work our way through what it isn't.

Two terms cause the difficulty: ‘stress' and ‘stroke':

  • ‘stress' has the technical meaning of how God breaks in upon us
  • ‘stroke' seems to mean the action through which the stress comes. But the action which has caused the shipwreck, Hopkins says, was not directly from God: ‘Nor first from heaven...'. God did not will the evil done by the storm in the sense of willing evil.

This is the difficult thing to understand: ‘here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss.'

The seventh line, ‘But it rides time like riding a river,' is particularly difficult. Various meanings have been suggested:

  • what is ‘it'? The grammar suggests ‘it' has to be ‘stroke'
  • so how does the stroke, the action ‘ride time'?
  • and how is that ‘like riding a river'?

Time is often seen as a river – the image itself is familiar enough. Suggestions have included:

  • ‘riding across', at right-angles to the flow, intruding in on it
  • breaking through it
  • ‘shooting rapids', it being a rough ride
  • staying on top, being master of.

Perhaps if we anticipate the next stanza, then it could mean that any account of this particular ‘stroke' must be traced back to Christ's life and sufferings. Once we understand those, then we can understand the present, and how the stroke can actually bring a ‘hush' to guilt and a ‘melt' of hearts.

Investigating Stanza 6
  • What do ‘stars and storms' represent?
  • Can you see the force of the phrase ‘flushed by'?
  • Do you see any link between stanzas 5 and 6?

Stanza 7

Any Christian theodicy has to start with Christ's life, ‘from day/Of his going in Galilee':

Hopkins provocatively puts the two together, exchanging vocabulary. So it is the ‘grave' rather than the ‘manger' (in which Jesus is said to have been placed at birth) which is ‘warm-laid'. The womb and the grave are seen as images of each other. By juxtaposing the two things, he takes his readers out of the usual comfort zone of ‘baby Jesus' and of the somewhat sentimental Nativity scenes which many associate with Christmas.

Hopkins' own conversion experience is an echo of Christ's ‘driven Passion':

  • ‘passion' is a technical term, again, meaning the whole suffering of Christ from his agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane (‘frightful sweat'), through his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.

If there is any suffering to be explained, it must be Christ's.

Even if a person knows of Christ's sufferings, and has felt some impact of it in their life - ‘Though felt before' - it is only when they are ‘hard at bay' that they can fully receive its full impact and meaning. This becomes the ‘stress' or deep revelation.

Investigating Stanza 7
  • What do the words ‘discharge' and ‘swellings' suggest?
  • What is the significance of ‘high flood'?
  • Can you see any parallelism building up to Part II?

Stanza 8

The stanza continues the final sentence left over from the previous stanza, the ‘heart, hard at bay....' now ‘Is out with it' – an explosive beginning, denoting the force of revelation of the ‘best or worst Word' that finally hits home:

  • by ‘Word', Hopkins is hiding the name of Christ.

Christ is described as:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...' (John 1:1)

So, in Hopkins' play on words, the first Word is now the ‘last', because that is where the human heart puts him until forced by the ‘strokes' received. Elsewhere in the Bible Christ is described as:

‘the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end' (Revelation 1:8)

  • the Word is ‘best or worst', ‘sour or sweet' like a sloe, a bitter type of fruit, because it is the last thing we may want and yet is the best
  • the experience of instress, conversion, revelation or whatever, is likened to having a piece of fruit in our mouths which we suddenly burst, so the mouth is flooded with taste.

Whichever way people are forced to come to Christ does not matter (‘Never ask'). The point is that the revelation of the meaning of Christ's suffering (‘Calvary'- the place of his crucifixion) suddenly comes to them, and they are then in a position to make some sense of other suffering, and to see how God works. It is a tough theology, but it is for tough events. Yet it is not harsh. Hopkins' imagery keeps a sense of mercy, even gentleness, in God's dealings.

Investigating Stanza 8
  • Look at the soft internal rhymes ending in –sh. Most are monosyllabic.
    • What is the effect of the sound of them on the sense?
  • ‘flush' echoes ‘flushed' of stanza 6.
    • What are the meanings of the word?
  • What are the meanings of ‘stroke'.
  • Why does Hopkins employ so many words with multiple meanings?
    • Is he really being deliberately ambiguous?

Stanza 9

Hopkins turns back to addressing Christ, as he did in stanza 1. The last two stanzas of this first part are a prayer of adoration to God as Trinity (‘three-numbered form'), as well as an anticipation of the second part:

  • ‘Wring thy rebel....with wrecking and storm' clearly gives us a clue as to how the theodicy will be resolved.
  • left to themselves, humans are like dogs in a den, ‘doggedly' determined to reject Christ's mastery. They need ‘flushing' out, to use the word you looked at in the last stanza.

The last lines of the stanza refer to God's mysterious ways, his ‘dark descending', a phrase some modern poets have picked up. Hopkins is echoing words quoted by Paul from the Old Testament:

‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things God hath prepared for them that love him.' (1 Corinthians 2:9)

In echoing them, Hopkins is moving into the language of paradox, where two apparently opposite things are put together as if they were the same. Christian writers often do this when they want to emphasise the otherness of God, the way in which he goes beyond human logic and understanding.

Investigating Stanza 9
  • How can God's love be, paradoxically, ‘a winter and warm'?
  • Can you find some other examples of paradoxical language in this stanza?

Stanza 10

The last stanza of this part gives two examples of how people have found God, accompanied by two contrasting images:

  • the blacksmith image (also to be found in Felix Randal) where the theme is that suffering can bring people back to God
  • an image of Spring, ‘stealing' gently upon people.

Nevertheless, the end result is the same: either gently or violently, people are ‘mastered' by God, the point we discussed in stanza 1. More examples of being mastered?

More examples of being mastered:
  • One of two examples is Saint Paul, whose dramatic conversion is retold in the Bible on several different occasions, including Acts 9:1-19:
‘…suddenly a light from heaven flashed round him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice....' (Acts 9:3-4)

This is followed by an encounter with God and then subsequent blindness, which was miraculously lifted a few days later

  • The other example is St. Augustine of Hippo, who tells of his slow but steady conversion in his Confessions, perhaps the most famous of all spiritual autobiographies.
Investigating Stanza 10
  • Bring out the contrasting sets of words which accompany each image and example.
    • Does the concept of ‘mastery' fit both sets?
  • Overall, in Part the First, what is the predominant emphasis?
  • Which stanzas or lines have you found most memorable so far?
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