by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1889
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a bit of an oddity among English poets. For one thing, he wrote some quite explicitly religious poetry — he is one of the very few major English poets since Milton to have mentioned Christ by name. For another, his style was very odd, full of archaisms and dialect speech, the grammar often twisted out of shape — or just barely not out of shape — in a way we would nowadays call "experimental." During my own schooldays Hopkins was introduced to us as a nature poet (via his most famous effort in that direction, "Pied Beauty," a poem I never could get to like). That is not quite right, as his scope is much broader than that, and not only in the religious dimension. Certainly he felt a strong affinity for nature; but the natural world of Hopkins' poetry is shot through with wonder and religious feeling, with, just audible now and then, a deep strong note of despair. He seems not to have experienced much happiness, or to have found any work for which he was suited.
The sonnet "Felix Randal" was probably written in the late 1870s, Hopkins then in his mid thirties. At that time he was a parish priest of the Roman Catholic church, whither he had followed John Henry Newman. He served in various parishes in England and Scotland.
There is a Hopkins Society with a website here.
In "Felix Randal" Hopkins laments the death of a parishioner, a village blacksmith. He notes the man's death; recalls his fatal illness(es); expresses pity; then, in a wonderful climax, contrasts the weak, sick, dying Felix Randal with his former self, strong and proud — doing work (making iron shoes for the hoofs of carthorses) that Hopkins raises to something mythic, almost divine.
"farrier" = blacksmith.
"being anointed" = having received a sacrament (presumably Extreme Unction).
"all road" = every way (dialect).
"fettle" = make, prepare.
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• Text of the poem
Felix Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?
Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!
This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;
How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!