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 have 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 choose.

    As I’ve mentioned before, Gerard Manley 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. Many people do not think Hopkins is worth the effort it takes, and though I disagree, I do not begrudge anyone this opinion.

    Once decoded, however, Hopkins’s poems yield up incredible things, and many of these poems never stop yielding, no matter how many times you read them. In this regard, there’s only one poet who’s superior, and that 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 Shakespearean sonnet, has fourteen total lines. 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 patterned CDCDCD. Traditionally in Petrarchan sonnets, sestets will often vary, but the pattern Gerard Hopkins chose for “Felix Randal,” as he did for many of his other poems, is the most traditional pattern for the Petrarchan.

    (The primary difference between the Shakespearean form and the Petrarchan form is that the Shakespearean consists of three quatrains rhyming ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and concludes with a couplet: GG.)

    “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 happy (“all thy more boisterous years”):

    There is, let us note, in this entire poem a subtle but unmistakable 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 crucial in more fully understanding the power of this poem, and that 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 the two terms shouldn’t be conflated. Farriers are a subdivision of blacksmithing. Farriers work specifically with horses, and though farriers do require considerable training in blacksmithing so that they may properly craft horseshoes and mend them (or “fettle,” as Hopkins so excellently describes it, and mending is indeed a major theme of this entire poem), farriers are more specialized than blacksmiths. On the other hand, a blacksmith 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 I’ll come to again below, and which I think 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 commentators and critics have fatuously seen in this an almost offhand, even indifferent response to some piece of 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 true finality and closure — a human being who, through administering to a man while this man was sick and slowly dying, Hopkins grew to deeply 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 totally contradicts any idea or interpretation of offhandedness on the part of the priest-poet.

    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?

    Someone who understands and feels the pure passion of a human life giving way to death — and the word “passion,” never forget, means “suffering.” Passion is the word born to mean suffering.

    Any commentator or critic who cannot 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 the 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 is also a legitimate interpretation.

    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 briefly here and also call your attention to the ingenious rhymes from the beginning to the end of this poem, the sheer subtlety and 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, his soul: he grew calm and came to peace, and Hopkins the kind and gentle priest had helped Felix reach this.

    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 is 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 and lovely writing that stanza contains.

    I’d like also 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 theme, its distinguishing characteristic. This poem is filled with authenticity and compassion and caritas, and it is very beautiful.

    The lines of that stanza conclude with Hopkins the priest asking that God give rest to Felix for any offenses he might 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 calm and then at peace — it endears them to us, Hopkins says. But take special note also what Hopkins says right after that: “us too it endears.”

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

    A connection is thus born between these two people.

    This is an insight and an observation (on Hopkins’s part) of pure poignancy and pure 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 line strikes me as the most heartfelt and touching line 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 is 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 great miniature masterpieces.

    Gerard Hopkins has taken us, in 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, pounding out metal, were each powerful, down to the last man, and yet Felix was the strongest and greatest of them all), and he was a happy human (“all they more boisterous years”), and back in those beautiful days when Felix was so powerful and so happy, how far away from forethought it 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 is 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 this poem. 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 lovingkindness and the tender compassion of others are also important and beautiful, and it endears us to one another.

    Finally, 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?

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

    They both mended for another being and were both enriched thereby.

    “Sandal” rhymes with “Randal.”

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

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

    The poetic power and depth of this is unimaginable, and if you’re not familiar with this poem, I envy you your new and wonderful discovery of something which goes as deep as the sea, and I hope that you will read it and reread it and reread it all your life, as I have done, because you will 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 personal circumstances at any given time.

    The pure lovekindness and tenderness that Hopkins captured in this little power-packed poem will never diminish for you or fade, but only grow.

    That I know.


    March 7th, 2021 | journalpulp | 13 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 as the constant in my life.

13 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 by my empty bottle, the dripping sink, and no one there who knows my name, my meaning, nor 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, so 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 the good movie Vision Quest quotes and explicates accurately, in a sort of recapitulation of that movie’s theme. I found the clip from the movie where this Hopkins poem is read aloud.)

    God’s Grandeur

    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 runs so deep.

  • 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. I’m interested. 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 great 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.

    Ciao!
    Elvin

  • 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:

    https://medium.com/lit-up/the-language-of-poetry-c51cc463d6f

    https://medium.com/lit-up/the-melody-of-form-3a910c4f69e7

  • 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 say here, eetkamer meubels, and I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and leave such a thoughtful comment.

    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.

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