Justus Quidem Tu Es, Domine, Si Disputem Tecum, Verumtamen Justa Loquar Ad Te
  • Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
    justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur?

    Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
    With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
    Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
    Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
    How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
    Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
    Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
    Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
    Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
    With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
    Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
    Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
    Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

    — Gerard Manley Hopkins

    This powerful poem is a Petrarchan sonnet — or Italian sonnet, if you prefer (the two terms are synonymous) — which means that beyond having fourteen total lines, the poem in the first eight lines (the octet) follows a strict ABBAABBA rhyme-pattern, and then in the second section (the sestet), the final six lines are patterned CDCDCD. In Petrarchan sonnets, sestets can vary in their rhyme scheme, but the pattern Gerard Manley Hopkins chose for this poem is the most traditional.

    Hopkins penned Thou Art Indeed Just (as this poem is most often titled) exactly 131 years ago (March of 1889), only two-and-a-half months before the genius priest-poet died of typhus, at the age of forty-four. It’s often considered Hopkins’s last great poem, and I myself regard it as an unequivocal masterpiece — perhaps the greatest of all his great poems.

    This sonnet is also the last among a handful of his poems sometimes called — though never by Hopkins himself — the “terrible sonnets.” The terrible sonnets are impassioned sonnets-as-importunings. They explode with anguish, yearning, and tortured frustration, all of which is directed toward God.

    The title and the epigraph in this poem come from Jeremiah 12:1 of the Vulgate. The Vulgate is the Latin translation of the bible by Saint Jerome. Yet the title clearly echoes also Psalms 22, which contains the very words Christ on the cross cried out:

    “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    The opening lines of the poem, as distinguished from the title and epigraph, are Hopkins’s poetic restructuring — restructuring for the rhythm and rhyme — his personal translation of the Latin, which, incidentally, King James translates this way: “Righteous art thou, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments”.

    My elaboration of this may at first appear confusing. But I believe — I hope — this confusion clarifies when a distinction is made between the title-and-epigraph and the body of poem.

    I quote again Hopkins’s opening two lines, which are both Hopkins’s translation of the Latin (from Jeremiah 12:1 ) and also his poetic restructure for rhythm and rhyme:

    Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
    With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.

    Hopkins is one of the very few poets I will perfervidly call a true original — he’s at the very top of my list, in fact, the most original of them all. Because of his originality — which I believe came in part from the wild and brilliant strangeness of his musically-minded brain — Hopkins’s syntax as well as his language and diction, his meter and metric, his entire writing-style (and his subject-matter too), are often cryptic and odd, difficult to decode. Once decoded, however, his poems yield up incredible things — things which never cease yielding, no matter how many times you reread them.

    One might very loosely paraphrase Thou Art Indeed Just in the following way:

    Your grievances against me, Lord, are fully justified, and I see this clearly every time I grapple with my belief in you. But I, too, have justified grievances — grievances against you. Why does everything I strive to achieve only ever end in disappointment? Even if you were my enemy — which you’re not — it would be difficult to imagine your dashing my dreams more thoroughly than the way you do it now, as my friend. The drunk, meanwhile, and the profligate, the sexually obsessed and the pleasure-seeking party girls and party boys, who waste their time in pursuit of ephemeral pleasures, they seem to flourish far more often than I do, who spend my hours in sheer devotion to you. Look, too, at the natural world, where the banks of rivers and the bushes [i.e. brakes — which is an Old English word that means “bracken fern,” also a marshy land overgrown with bracken, a fact I mention because this usage of “brakes” is so obscure that if one isn’t familiar with it, as I wasn’t when I first read this poem, the meaning of the entire piece can easily at this point in the poem get confused and lost], they are thick with fertile-growing leaves and bursting bands of cow-parsley [i.e. “fretty chervil” — and isn’t that a delightful phrase the likes of which you and I have never heard before]. The wind shakes them. Nature thrives. She prospers. Birds build nests. But I don’t build anything. I labour with all my strength, a slave to time, and yet I haven’t produced a single thing that lives and grows. Oh, God, send rain to water my roots and give me life.

    The poet John Milton, after having just been stricken with irreparable blindness, wrote a sonnet titled “On His Blindness” — a poem with which Hopkins was very familiar — and I believe Hopkins in his poem here is obliquely referencing Milton’s opening: “How can I serve you when I am blind?”

    There’s also much in this poem inspired by the Book of Job. But, less obviously, there’s perhaps a suggestion of Psalms 37:2, wherein the Psalmist says “for like the grass the wicked will soon wither/like green plants they will soon die away.”

    This entire poem can and I think should be read as a kind of agonized and ferociously tortured prayer, culminating in those shattering final words, which are “an existential cry from the depths,” as a later priest named Celestine Bittle unforgettably described the last line of this poem:

    O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.


About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

One Response and Counting...

  • Doc 03.20.2020

    Hopkins is a dicey choice for any essay. For example, deconstructionists often read this poem as conveying a request to be buggered. The heart standing in for anus and the three-person’d God referring to the male sex apparatus.

    Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
    As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
    That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
    Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

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