Felix Randal
  • Felix Randal the farrier, oh, is he 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!


    “Felix Randal” is a Petrarchan sonnet penned by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), an Englishman and a Catholic priest who was both a musician and also a poet — a poet of such wild originality that I’ve often speculated his prosodic imagination must surely have come from some madman-like admixture of the private music inside his brain, combined with syntax influenced by his deep knowledge of Latin.

    Hopkins wrote “Felix Randal” in 1880, but this poem was not published until 1918, almost thirty years after Hopkins was dead.

    George Orwell thought “Felix Randal” the greatest short poem in the English language.

    I myself consider “Felix Randal” Hopkins’s best poem, which is saying a great deal, because his poems mean and have long meant so much to me. I first read Hopkins when I was nineteen-years-old. I’ve not stopped reading him since. I will never stop reading him.

    Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth over which of his poems I consider his greatest accomplishment, and “Felix Randal” is the one I now choose.

    As I’ve mentioned before, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the very few poets whom 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  – sourced, I believe, inside the Latin-soaked strangeness of his musical 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. Many people don’t think Hopkins is worth the effort it takes to decode his literature, and though I disagree, I nonetheless don’t begrudge anyone this assessment.

    Once decoded, Hopkins’s poems yield up incredible things, and many of these poems never stop yielding, no matter how many times you reread them. In this regard, there’s only one poet who’s superior, and that poet is Shakespeare. This is my opinion.

    As I’ve also discussed, the Petrarchan sonnet  –  or Italian sonnet, if you prefer (the two terms are synonymous)  –  is a sonnet which, like the English or Shakespearean sonnet (those two terms are also synonymous), contains a total of fourteen lines all of which rhyme. In the Petrarchan sonnet, as distinguished from the Shakespearean, 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 usually patterned CDCDCD. I say “usually” because in Petrarchan sonnets, sestets can vary in their rhyme-scheme. The pattern Gerard Hopkins chose for “Felix Randal,” as he did for most of his other Petrarchan sonnets, is the most traditional.

    (One of the two primary differences between the Shakespearean sonnet and the Petrarchan sonnet is that the Shakespearean consists of three quatrains rhyming ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and concludes with a couplet: GG. The other difference is that Petrarchan sonnets contain, almost by definition, a dramatic shift between the octet and sestet. Traditionally this dramatic shift is demarcated by a space after the octet. The Shakespearean sonnet doesn’t possess this.)

    “Felix Randal” was written about a real-life person, a farrier in Liverpool named Felix Spencer, who died of tuberculosis. Hopkins in the capacity of priest administered to this dying man, who was once so strong and vital and powerful — “powerful amidst peers” — and who was also a boisterous and happy man.

    There is in this entire poem a subtle sense of softness and serenity, even in dying: serenity in coming to terms with death and joy in life and vitality, joy in work, joy in strength and health.

    Gerard Hopkins the compassionate priest administered to Felix when Hopkins was living in Bedford Leigh, not far from the city of Liverpool.

    There’s something else I think critical to grasp in order to unlock the full mysterious power of “Felix Randal,” and that something else is the specific meaning of the word “farrier”:

    Many think of the word as synonymous with “blacksmith,” but this isn’t quite accurate. The work of the farrier is related to the work of the blacksmith, but they’re not the same thing.

    Farriers are a subdivision of blacksmithing.

    Farriers work with horses specifically, and though farriers do require considerable training in blacksmithing, so that they may properly craft horseshoes and other tack and mend these things (or “fettle,” as Hopkins so excellently describes it, and mending is indeed the major theme of this entire poem), farriers are nonetheless more specialized than blacksmiths.

    A blacksmith, on the other hand, is a smithy who works with iron but may never have any dealing with horses at all, or horse equipment.

    The reason I regard this point as important is primarily for the last lines of the poem, which fully concretize the theme of mending — I’ll come to this again below — and which elevate this poem to a level mythic and eternal.

    Observe first the way Gerard Hopkins opens his poem:

    “Felix Randal the farrier, oh, is he dead then…”

    Some quack commentators and faux critics have imagined they’ve seen in this opening an almost offhand, even indifferent response to some piece of trivial, quotidian news. This is dreadfully wrong, a misbegotten and even boorish misreading of the opening lines.

    What Hopkins has actually captured in his opening is a sense of finality and closure — a human being whom Hopkins, through administering to a man while this man was sick and slowly dying, Hopkins grew to love: “my duty all ended,” writes Hopkins the poet-priest, the compassionate, intelligent, God-obsessed, huge-hearted human:

    “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?”

    Notice also that this entire first stanza is interrogative  —  it ends with a question mark  –  and this one thing alone obliterates any idea or interpretation of triviality or offhandedness on the part of the priest-poet. And so do the following words and their repetition: “Pining, pining…”

    A “big-boned and hardy-handsome” man, so alive and strong, “pining, pining …”

    Do you know who would write something like that? Who would phrase something like this in that way, I mean?

    I’ll tell you: Someone who understands and feels the pure passion of a human-being at the moment his life gives way to death. The word “passion,” never forget, means “suffering.” Passion is the word born to mean suffering.

    Any commentator or critic who does not see this in that opening stanza is out of his depth.

    Pining until his reason had gone, Felix Randal’s various ailments (“Fatal four disorders”) fought within him for dominance, and in so doing reduced him to rambling. That is one possible and legitimate way to interpret it.

    Note also Hopkins’s peculiar syntax there: he does not say “four fatal disorders” but rather “fatal four disorders.”

    This, I believe, is a reference to the four humors of humorism  – the system of medicine which was first created by the Greeks and became popular throughout Europe up until the 19th century, when modern medicine began taking its place.

    Or perhaps it’s more the fact that they are fatal which Hopkins the poet and priest considers the important thing to highlight here  –  specifically, how the different diseases wracked Felix’s body and drove Felix half-mad by robbing him of his reason. That’s also a legitimate interpretation.

    Here’s the second stanza:

    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.

    First, Felix cursed at his illness  –  cursed in anger and then refused to accept it, which is now called denial.

    Please allow me to interrupt myself here and also call your attention to the ingenious rhymes from the beginning to the end of this poem, the sheer subtlety and lyric beauty of this intricately rhythmic piece.

    As time passed Felix’s anger calmed  –  he was “anointed” –  helped and comforted by Hopkins the priest. This is surely what Hopkins means in using the word “mended”: Felix was mended psychologically, in soul. He grew calm and came to peace, and Hopkins the kind and gentle priest helped Felix reach this state tranquility.

    Yet was that God’s plan?

    This is an interesting question and an interesting part of the poem  — a question and idea about which I’ve thought a great deal. It’s difficult to answer for sure: because prior to Hopkins ever coming to administer to Felix a “heavenlier heart” had decided Felix’s path “Months earlier” than the time at which Hopkins “had our sweet reprieve and ransom tendered to him.”

    Had Felix already begun thinking of God and praying, going to church, perhaps, where Hopkins gave mass, several months before he was sick? This is also a possible and legitimate interpretation.

    Oh, but what delicate writing that stanza contains.

    I’d also like to call your attention to these words as well: “tendered to him.”

    Not “tended” or “attended” or even “mended,” though clearly with those connotations too, but “tendered.”

    This poem teems with tenderness.

    Tenderness is its essence, its distinguishing characteristic. This poem is filled with authenticity and compassion and caritas, and it is moving and very beautiful.

    The lines of that stanza conclude with Hopkins the priest asking that God give rest to Felix for any offenses Felix may have ever caused, as who among us has not?

    Gerard Hopkins the poet then takes three lines to described how Felix’s illness created a bond between them and endeared them to each other. They are connected through tears and touch and through compassion and caring:

    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.

    Seeing humans in this way  –  sick, but also angry and then at peace — it endears them to us, Hopkins says. But take special note what Hopkins says right after that: “us too it endears.”

    The sick and dying human is endeared to the visitor who in coming to see him brings succor and comfort, calm and a sense of serenity.

    A connection is thus born between these two human beings.

    This is an insight and an observation (on Hopkins’s part) of pure poignancy and profundity: there has developed a genuine love between them both, because there is succor and there is compassion, and they both know that they’re nearing the end of a human life, which is always important and never to be taken lightly or treated lightly.

    The next two lines strikes me as the most heartfelt and touching lines in this entire heartfelt and touching poem. It describes how Gerard Hopkins’s touch brought comfort to Felix, in Felix’s final days and hours, and that Felix Randal’s tears also, in turn, touched Gerard Hopkins’s heart equally:

    My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
    Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal.

    Those two lines capture so much  –  foremost of all the purity of lovingkindness.

    Here’s the final stanza:

    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!

    This poem, please note, ends in happiness and celebration.

    “Felix Randal” is a poem of celebration.

    That is what makes “Felix Randal” one of literature’s very greatest miniature masterpieces.

    Gerard Hopkins has taken us, in all of fourteen lines, into the minds and circumstances of these two humans, and Hopkins ends not in pity or pathos but in pure celebration of Felix Randal, a strong and healthy human whom Hopkins had come to love — a man “powerful even amidst his peers,” who as farriers swinging huge heavy hammers the live-long day and pounding out brute iron slag, were each powerful, down to the last man, yet Felix was the strongest and greatest of them all.

    Felix Randal was also a happy human (“all thy more boisterous years”), and back in those beautiful days of youth when Felix was so powerful and happy, how far away from forethought it all was  –  all this sickness and death, as it should have been and should always be. Because when we’re vital and healthy and happy, there’s life to be lived and it should be lived.

    The goal and purpose of life is life.

    This is what I believe Hopkins is saying in the poem “Felix Randal.”

    Revel, oh young humans in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth.

    But when sickness and death comes, the tenderness and compassion of others are of equal importance, and it’s one of many things that endears us to one another.

    Finally and perhaps most remarkable of all, observe the closing image, almost a metaphor but not quite, which Gerard Hopkins, in all his poetic genius, uses to capture the beauty of youth and strength that the drayhorse and young Felix both embody  –  the beauty and happiness and the vitality that Felix Randal had contained: how Felix fettles (mends) for the great gray drayhorse (drayhorses were the horses that pulled the heaviest loads –  which is to say that they were the strongest of the horses, as Felix was the strongest of his peers) — how Felix fettles for this great horse a bright and battering sandal.

    Hopkins the poet made Felix the farrier’s mended horseshoe into a sandal.

    And is there a Christlike intimation in the terminology of sandal — Christ who washed the feet of his disciples?

    Felix Randal tendered to the great gray drayhorse, similar to the way in which Gerard Hopkins tendered to Felix Randal, similar to the way in which Christ tendered to his disciples.

    They each mended for other living beings and were enriched thereby.

    “Sandal” rhymes with “Randal.”

    And do you see that drayhorse’s sandal which Felix mended flashing brightly in the life-giving sun? Do you hear it ring-out when the living drayhorse clops — the bright and battering sandal that Felix mended, child Felix, Felix Randal?

    I do. I do, indeed. And I feel the beauty and passion and compassion in the mould of the mended man and the mending priest, and in the mould of the mended horseshoe-sandal which was mended by Felix Randal.

    The poetic power and depth of this is unimaginable, and if you’re not familiar with this poem, I envy you your new discovery. It’s as deep as the sea, and I hope that you’ll read it and reread it all your life, as I have done, because you’ll never tire of it, and it will continually yield up new meaning and poignancy, and it will touch your heart more and more each time you read it, depending upon the events of your life and your own circumstances at any given time.

    The lovingkindness and tenderness that Gerard Manley Hopkins captured in his purely profound poem will never diminish for you or fade, but only grow.

    This I know.

    March 7th, 2021 | journalpulp | 15 Comments | Tags: ,

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.

15 Responses and Counting...

  • Elvin 03.07.2021

    Wow, thank you for this. I’m glad to have discovered him through your post. I’ll buy a collection of his poetry today! Hope you’re doing dandy.

  • It’s so good to hear from you, brutha.

    I wish I was making you an old Old-Fashioned, and you were at the piano playing Debussy so beautifully, as you do.

  • You in Foco right now? Would love to catch up. Also, any other poems of Hopkins that you’d recommend? The book I have has his complete poems and selected prose, but there are a lot. Seems “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is very well-known one. Ciao

  • You can currently find me at the intersection of wanderlust street and desolation boulevard. You’ll recognize me not by appearance but by my empty bottle and the dripping sink. No one there who knows my name, or my meaning, or the treasure of my escape.

    “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is among the very last of his poems I’d recommend — so obscure and dense is it, so long and difficult to follow.

    I recommend these:

    Pied Beauty” — which is unquestionably the most beautiful thing ever written about freckled, spotted, piebald, dappled things.

    The Starlight Night” (It’s a kind of March poem. “May-mess” means the profusion of growth you see fully in May blossoms. “Mealed-with-yellow sallows” refers to willows, with yellow spots like meal. “… The shocks. This piece-bright paling” — paling refers to a fence in which each individual slat is bright. “Shocks” refers to sheafs of grain, but I think also to a jarring event and specifically to the line from Hamlet: “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”)

    Spring and Fall,” which is one of my favorite of his poems, and which a good character in a pretty good movie called Vision Quest accurately explicates, in a sort of recapitulation of that movie’s theme. Here’s a clip I found from the movie wherein this Hopkins poem is read aloud.

    God’s Grandeur

    Inversnaid,” which is the name of a Scottish highland stream, which, as you would suspect, is the subject-matter of the poem. It’s in my opinion one of Hopkins’s most purely rhythmic pieces — the joyous melody of its metric, in collaboration with its uncontainably infectious rhymes, rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, the bloodbeat, and then the mind.

    Spring” (Watch in this poem how he opens with such an ordinary and undistinguished line — “Nothing is so beautiful as a spring day …” — and then his idea gains and grows: “When weeds in wheels grow round and lovely and lush…” “wheels” referring to their circular shape that weeds often grow in.)

    Hurrahing in Harvest

    Binsley Poplars

    As a Kingfisher Catches Fire

    Thou Art Indeed Just Lord” which I’ve written about here.

    Carrion Comfort” which is one of his so-called “Terrible Sonnets.”

    I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark” which is also one of the “Terrible Sonnets,” which is about a dark night of the soul and the best literature on this subject I’ve read. “No Worst, There Is Noneaussi.

    “The Windhover” is undoubtedly his most famous poem — “more ink has been spilled over ‘The Windhover’ than any other poem of the last 200 years, except maybe “The Wasteland,” by T.S. Eliot,” as someone once said — and I do love that poem. But it’s difficult and strange and not one I’d begin with. Hopkins himself considered it his best poem, and so did the poet Robert Bridges, who was also Hopkins’s friend and the first person who saw Hopkins’s poetic brilliance and was responsible for getting Hopkins’s first poems published.

  • Most non-religious, non-believers cannot get beyond Gerard Manley Hopkins’s deep devotion and religiosity. Non-religious readers who are also writers of poetry sometimes can — based purely on the strength and originality and the technical depth of his writing style. I have no such qualms, scruples, or problems. None whatsoever. God is a metaphor. I do not think one need be devout or even a believer to see Hopkins’s inexpressible brilliance, or to understand the rarified magnitude of his poetry, and that is why my admiration and affection for Hopkins knows no bounds or boundaries.

  • Since the era of Charlemagne

  • What an interesting comment, Keypadahga, sir or ma’am.
    I believe that you’re neither bot nor spam.
    Tell me more, please. You have my attention. I do not kid with you or tease. I once spent a year of my life reading about Chanson de Roland, Ogier the Dane, and Charlemagne in his prime.

    Ogier the Dane in my eyes is one of the very greatest unsung heroes of all-time.

  • Thanks for the generous and detailed reply! I will certainly read all that you recommend. I have a strict reading routine. In the morning, I start with a Montaigne essay, then do a poem. Recently I was doing Yeats, but I’ll switch to Hopkins. I’m reading through all the Chekhov short stories, so I’ll read one or two after the poem. In the evening, I’ve been slowly reading through all the major Dostoevsky works – currently on “The Gambler.” Then I end the night with a newer work by a modern thinker – currently Jordan Peterson’s “Beyond Order.”

    I probably wouldn’t be having such a detailed reading regiment, if not for our many talks and the numerous posts of yours I’ve read. Anytime I feel like taking a break from reading, I imagine you kicking my ass and pouring me an old-fashioned out of pity, haha. I can always be better than I am, and I will be.


  • I probably wouldn’t be having such a detailed reading regiment, if not for our many talks and the numerous posts of yours I’ve read.

    You make me feel vindicated, ol’ chap!

    The truth is, you’re one of the best readers I know, and you always have been. You’re a rare person, in fact. I know I speak for every writer in the world when I say that you’re deeply appreciated — admired, even. Old Fashions not out of pity but out of appreciation.

    Have you ever heard of Lit Up? It’s a wonderful literary magazine. I help edit poems there, and they’re also kind enough to publish some of my poetry and my literary essays. Please drop by for a visit:



  • The Holy Sacraments deliver salvation, and the poem emphasizes their transformative effects on the parishioner, the learning of what is so gracefully phrased as “a heavenlier heart”. At the same time, the priest is fatherly in a literal way; in lines 10 and 11, there’s a direct tenderly empathetic voiced addressed to “child, Felix, poor Felix Randal” . Hopkins welds priest, father and perhaps doctor into his persona. The reference to the “fatal four disorders” suggests a medical diagnosis based on the ancient concept of the four humours : it was thought necessary that the four – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm – remain in balance to ensure human health. In its symbols and textures, the poem seems at times a synthesis of the four elements – fire, air, earth and water – that were said to correspond to the humours. Heat and air are the elements of life and livelihood, contrasting with the weight of impending death and the flowing of tears. Above all, Hopkins reveals the totality of his human response to suffering. The poem gathers up the professional roles into an enormous expression of empathy, and seizes an unforgettable image of life and power from the ashes of decline.

  • I don’t significantly disagree with anything you’ve written here, eetkamer meubels, and I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and leave such a thoughtful comment, which among other things shows us in part how vast “Felix Randal” actually is, and how my article here is but a first pass over the surface of the poem.

    Your insight that “Hopkins welds priest, father and perhaps doctor into his persona” I found particularly smart, and also accurate — so much so, in fact, that since reading your insight and then thinking about it over a long period of time, I realized all at once one day that to my delight and pleasant surprise I now read this poem in a different and deeper way. Your “doctor persona” is so well-observed that I no longer read this poem or think about it outside of this context.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • L

    I do so love when you detour into the realm of poetry. What a gem. Thank you

  • What a pleasant surprise! Thank you.

    You want to know something? All I ever really wanted to be was a poet.

  • Such a beautiful, close, deep reading of this poem. This:

    The goal and purpose of life is life.

    I shall remember that. For many reasons.

    And I am still smiling five minutes later after your observation that the final word in the poem rhyming with his name–so reifying, such a musical affirmation of beauty and purpose and meaning.

    Thank you for this.

  • Thank you, Rosemerry.

    Thank you for reading and thank you for the best comment ever.

Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required