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Thou art indeed just, Lord

August 29, 2016

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, 1897

COMMENTARY: Hopkins’ sonnet starts off with a fairly literal translation of Jeremiah 12:1 and 2 which reads, in the King James, “Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee, yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all they very happy that deal treacherously? Thou hast planted them; yea they have taken root; they grow, yea, they bring forth fruit.” From there, however, Hopkins’ meditation turns from the general to the personal, and the complaint becomes not, as it is in Jeremiah, a somewhat proud inquiry into justice, but instead an existential plea. The phrase “Time’s eunuch” is a striking metaphor: compact and visceral. The final line, with its chiming of “L’s” and “a’s” is half whimper, half howl.

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One Comment
  1. What an apt and fresh image–a jarring re-seeing of the ordinary:

    See, banks and brakes
    Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
    With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
    Them; birds build

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