The Jesuit poem you should be reading this Halloween
While Netflix or your podcast feed may be the way you consume spooky tales during the Halloween season, poetry has been making readers squirm out of their skin for centuries.
Whether it is Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic elegy “Annabel Lee,” the Victorian nightmare “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” by Robert Browning, or the Scottish mischief and “fearfu’ settlin’s” in Robert Burns’s aptly titled “Halloween,” poets have long captured both the petrifying and the playful spirit of All Hallows’ Eve.
But what if I told you one of the most frightening, despairing poems in English literature was written by a Jesuit? While certainly an unorthodox choice, “Carrion Comfort,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., fits with the Christian roots of Halloween as an appraisal of faith in the face of horror.
Hopkins was one of the most influential writers of the 19th century. Known for his innovative use of sprung rhythm prosody and his spirited praise of God, he inspired future poets like T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. Although many of Hopkins’s poems meditate on the miracle of God’s presence in the natural world, “Carrion Comfort” presents readers with an incredibly haunting scene and raises the question: What happens when we feel like God is at the root of our suffering?
“Carrion Comfort” is one of Hopkins’s six so-called terrible sonnets, which center on themes of desolation and abandonment. It was written at one of the lowest points in the writer’s life. It is believed that Hopkins likely struggled with bipolar disorder or depression (or both) for much of his career and vocation.
While certainly an unorthodox choice, “Carrion Comfort” fits with the Christian roots of Halloween as an appraisal of faith in the face of horror.
Paul Mariani, a scholar of Hopkins’s life and work and university professor emeritus of English at Boston College, gave some historical context in an email: “Father Hopkins, in 1885, was teaching and examining the Latin and Greek papers of hundreds of students [in Dublin], mostly Irish Catholics, there at the Jesuit University College run by his order of Jesuits, on St. Stephen’s Green.”
Professor Mariani sets the scene: “He’s not well, he’s overworked, and—though he tries to keep a positive look on things—he’s on the brink of despair, and has been for at least a year now. He’s the only Englishman in his community, and he feels very much the outsider as Irish national sentiment continues to grow as the British government seems to largely ignore the Irish.”
This internal struggle and sense of seclusion is made manifest in “Carrion Comfort.” Hopkins looks inward to reflect on the terrors present in a world where God seemingly intends to make us suffer. This is much scarier than things that go bump in the night.
Professor Mariani: “I keep thinking of Edgar Allan Poe as I meditate on this particular poem—the darkness, the isolation, the sense of some overwhelming force wrestling him to the ground in some cat and mouse game, except that the cat this time has the force of a hungry lion, and he is the prey.”
“Carrion Comfort” is a sharp detour from the language that Hopkins usually employed when writing about God. For example, in his poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Hopkins wrote, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his....”
Here Hopkins revels in the ability to see God in the eyes and bodies of man, extolling the beauty in recognizing him in all people. However, as Professor Mariani notes, God’s eyes look much different in “Carrion Comfort”—they are far darker.
Hopkins writes: “O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me/ Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan/ With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones?”
The image of God as a fearsome beast of prey stalking our disheartened minds and spirits, waiting for us to fall into the abyss of despondency before pouncing strikes fear into the heart of the reader. It’s almost as if Hopkins imagines an alternate universe, where instead of being the benevolent King of Kings, God wears the crown of the Prince of Darkness.
As the poem’s title suggests, Hopkins compares wallowing in despair to feasting on “carrion,” or the rotting flesh of an animal. While much of the poem’s emotional weight and existential fears are represented outside the physical plane, the putrid smells and tastes that Hopkins evokes are enough to make your skin crawl.
Though Hopkins initially fears that God is responsible for bringing these horrors upon him, by the end of the poem, he sees the struggle as a necessary battle to further his relationship with God. Much like some popular horror movies (Regan being freed of Pazuzu in “The Exorcist” at the cost of Father Karras’s life; Chris escaping the clutches of the Armitage family with certain lifelong trauma in “Get Out”), the protagonist finds a way to survive, but not without plenty of misery along the way.
Professor Mariani views “Carrion Comfort” as akin to Jesus’ rebuke of God during his crucifixion. “He utters the words that the crucified Christ uttered on the cross in his last hour: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? That ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani’ the psalmist uttered in the Twenty-third Psalm. A poem of its own which begins with despair, is misunderstood by the authorities watching him on Skull Hill, as he utters these words, but words that begin—as with Hopkins’ poem—with the hope that he will escape this torture, better for the ordeal, and cheered by himself. And his Lord.”
It’s almost as if Hopkins imagines an alternate universe, where instead of being the benevolent King of Kings, God wears the crown of the Prince of Darkness.
Hopkins’s forsaking of God in the face of turmoil not only connects Hopkins to Christ on Good Friday but serves as a reminder that it is a human act to scorn our creator in moments of intense despair.
“Carrion Comfort,” with no explicit mentions of ghosts or ghouls, is a fitting read for Catholics at Halloween time. It asks the question: What’s scarier? A world where the cause of our suffering is unknown to us, or one where God dares us to feel our way through the darkness?
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Correction, Nov. 1: Edgar Allan Poe's middle name was initially misspelled as Allen in this article; the first name of the girl in ”The Exorcist” is Regan, not Reagan.