G. M. Hopkins and the Blacksmith’s Sandal

Gerard Manley Hopkins was the first poet my heart stirred for. He tore general thoughts down and reassembled them as uneven webs of particulars seen into for the first time. Language, he taught, is a hiding place where sensations go to be pressed and cleaned for common use. Poetry, if working well, undoes this domestication and reconnects sensations with minds and hearts. Exceptional language allows us to recover from conventional language … in other words, poetry.

His curtailed sonnet, “Pied Beauty,” tells the story:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Nature, God, and we should all bear the label “irregular.” Hopkins’ language is peculiar – “pied,” “dappled,” “brinded,” “rose-moles,” “stipple,” – the poem is exuberant, crazed with language. And it isn’t only Nature – mottled skies, cow designs, shining trout mosaics, and such – but also our world of endless inventiveness; the hardware store with row upon row of drawers and cabinets, holding screws, nails, hooks, bolts, nuts, braces, plates, and exotic single-use hand tools passed down through the generations; marine gear, automotive gear, medical gear, library gear … world without end. The mind prefers categories, but the world abounds in things.

Hopkins’ four and two-fifths sestet describes what we poetry folks are and prefer – you know who you are. People who embrace the arts are counter, original, spare, and strange, and fickle, too. And we take to our kind and these things in the world. When we come alive to the peculiar energy of particular things, we see God in speckled glory … reality irreducibly what it is (“I am what is”) and resistant to all our puny efforts to hold, contain, and define.

“Felix Randal” puts this into play in a common drama of our uncommon life:

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!

The poem is a sonnet, but unlike most sonnets, a dramatic monologue. The speaker, a priest, had a duty to watch over the dying black-smith (farrier), offer him the sweet reprieve and ransoming of sins (redemption), and anoint him in preparation for his journey (viaticum) to heaven. The priest knew Felix when he was “hardy-handsome,” one of those big-boned fellows, and saw him broken by illness and reduced to the weakness and fears of a child. As the poem opens, the priest is informed of Randal’s death, and the poem tracks his response, from keeping feelings at a distance to painful emotional recognition, to an imagined triumphant resurrection. We observe the priest make his way through these stages of feeling, and in himself, through the transition from fear to faith.

The priest thinks first of his formal duties and welcomes the prospect that this chapter has ended. He has no shock or pain at the news. Instead he entertains a notion about the medical cause and plays with an ambitious metaphor (the diseases “fleshing” themselves). But the opening quatrain concludes with a question. Are his duties ended, can he close that book and move on, or is there more? He recalls in the second stanza how smoothly it all went, just as it should as described in the priest’s pastoral care manual. The patient was angry, then repentant then reconciled through forgiveness and the promise of heaven. Everything went as it should. To seal the book, the octave concludes with a joke – “God rest him all road ever he offended.” A blacksmith’s occupational sin would have been to make horse-shoes badly and thereby injure the roadway – a piece of wit meant to seal off the episode.

The priest is keeping grief in abeyance. His attendance upon Felix, he proposes, was nothing personal, just doing his duty. Felix was just one of those rough countrymen, cut in that “mould.” Things went as they should. The mystery of death is resolved by the Church’s rites, rational facts, and the slick irony of his little joke. It’s what we do, keeping life at an emotional distance, deflecting its pain in generalizations and abstractions.

In the next three lines, this strategy of abeyance crumbles. The generalization becomes particular. It’s as if the priest’s thought moves in diminishing circles. Still in his mood of pastoral abstraction, the priest recalls that this seeing of the sick sometimes makes them dear to us and that we can become dear to them in the process, too. And, as the circle tightens, it becomes personal, with “my tongue had taught thee.” But the key movement is marked rhythmically – “my tongue had taught thee comfort … touch had quenched they tears … thy tears that touched my heart.” This declension to feeling moves slowly, as each level collapses into a more profound level of recognition beneath.

Here, a good voicing of this drama makes all the difference. The pauses at each level mark a shift in recognition. The iambs pile up without finding their pentameter, broken in ruminative pieces. And finally we arrive at “child” – pause — “Felix” (for the first time addressing the person) – and then the simple grieving of “poor Felix Randall.” The contrast of this heart-felt phrase with all the preceding chatter is profound, a shock of recognition for the priest.

The closing remarks show the priest’s imagination released to make Felix Randal real to him. He recalls the blacksmith in his boisterous years, working at his forge. The line “When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,…” sounds in its scansion the anvil’s ring as Felix hammers upon it, and the plosives sound the shock of his power. But the final line is more remarkable. The words “didst fettle” are delicate and precise, well out of character for the blacksmith at his work. In the midst of all this muscular force, the priest discovers something fragile. This surprising notion carries forward into the collision of “great grey drayhorse” (again the anvil sounding), “bright and battering” echoing “powerful among peers,” with “sandal.”

A horseshoe, for all its weight and solidity, is a sandal. It is an open shape and seemingly too small and narrow to uphold a monumental work horse. As the drayhorse depends upon a metal sandal, so Felix, muscular and boisterous, hangs by the delicate but powerful thread of faith. The battering is done on life’s roadways, offending in their boisterous force. The soul of Felix (his name announcing happiness and luck) is bourn up by the faith the priest inspires. But Felix is remembered for his magnificent strength, resurrected in the priest’s mind as a force in the world, which must like all others pass away.

The priest resisted this journey into feeling and memory, as if death were too painful. However, in the end, the priest resurrects Felix Randall in his memory and imagination. He makes real to himself what Felix was and the love he bears him. We live, all of us, on nothing more substantial than a delicate sandal. In our mortality, we are sustained by God’s love for each original one of us and the love we have for each strange-freckled one another.

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