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 often vary, but the pattern Gerard Manley Hopkins chose for this poem is the most traditional.

    Thou Art Indeed Just, as this poem is most often titled, was written 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. It’s also the last among a handful of his poems sometimes called, though never by Hopkins, the “terrible sonnets.” The terrible sonnets are impassioned sonnets-as-prayers, exploding with anguish, yearning, and a sort of tortured frustration all directed toward God.

    The title and the epigraph in this poem come from Jeremiah 12:1 of the Vulgate, which is the Latin translation of the bible by Saint Jerome, but it also clearly echoes Psalm 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 are Hopkins’s translation of the Latin (which the King James translates “Righteous art thou, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments”):

    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. (George Orwell thought Hopkins’s one-of-a-kind poem Felix Randal the “best short poem written in English”). 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.

    One might paraphrase Thou Art Indeed Just this 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 hard to imagine you more thoroughly dashing my dreams than the way you do it now, as my friend. Meanwhile, the drunk, the sexually obsessed, the party girls and party boys, who waste their time seeking ephemeral pleasures, they succeed far more often than I do, who spend my hours in sheer devotion to you. And 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 get confused], they are thick with fertile-growing leaves and bursting bands of cow-parsley [“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 flourishes. Birds build nests, but I don’t build anything. I labour hard, 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 and growth.

    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 familiar — and I believe Hopkins in his poem here was obliquely referencing Milton’s line “How can I serve you when I am blind?” There’s clearly 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 ferociously tortured prayer, culminating in those shattering final words, which are “an existential prayer 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 as the constant in 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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