‘My own heart let me more have pity on’

Write a critical appreciation of the following poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (published 1918), paying particular attention to the ways in which it examines a sense of self.

2018 JC1 Continual Assessment

Hopkins’ poem portrays a mind and self dwelling in a particular moment of turmoil, and the persona self-describes this psychological unravelling as it evolves from a state of anguish and despair into one of elevation and hope. The self, through the presence of this transition, is thus depicted to possess potential for transformation, capable of arriving at a more restful and reassured spiritual state from the disquietude of psychological agitation. More poignantly, the self is described to be trapped in a state of despair and stasis as the persona wallows in his inability to lift himself out of his miserable condition, while at the same time yearning for comfort and respite.

First, the persona is seen to be languishing in psychological torment, preoccupied with the troubled state of his mind and and an unmoored sense of self. The persona’s woe is immediately evident to the reader in the first line, where he appears to be imploring himself to “let [me] more have pity on” his “own heart”, unequivocally conveying his feelings of self-pity, which suggests that he has mulled over his emotional state and it is a concern that afflicts him to the point of constant, painful self-awareness. The use of the verb “let” in “let / Me live to my sad self…” followed subsequently by the use of the negative “not live [this tormented mind]” demonstrates the ongoing inner conflict the persona experiences, struggling unceasingly between two opposing emotional states: the desire to “let” himself  “live to my sad self hereafter kind”, and the rejection of the reality of his “tormented mind.” This tension is also present in the 5th line where “I cast [for comfort]” that “I can no more get”, again demonstrating the regrettable disparity between the persona’s desires and his wretched reality. Thus, the persona’s psychological turmoil plagues him as it traps him in between two antagonising mentalities. These divergences are manifestations of the persona’s “tormented mind”, emphasised by the repetition of the idea of torment as seen in “not live this tormented mind / With this tormented mind tormenting yet”. The degree to which the persona is handicapped by his mental suffering is thus embodied in this repetition, which reifies the persona’s psychological agony and the frustration one can feel from the intangibility and intractability of it all. Finally, the persona’s paralysis in his troubled state is further foregrounded by the persona’s acknowledgment of the futility of his search for comfort, believing that he “can no more get / By groping round my comfortless” – finding comfort will be as pointless and impotent as if he were looking for it in places where it already does not exist. It will be akin to “blind / Eyes in their dark” hoping to find “day” and “thirst” finding “Thirst’ all-in-all” in “all a world of wet.” The use of analogy underscores the fruitlessness of the persona’s attempts to find comfort and conveys an accordant sense of despair and forlornness, as he equates his search for repose and solace to the absurdity of blind eyes trying to see in the dark and thirst being satiated in a world with an infinite supply of water. The dramatism of these last lines drive home the utter despair the persona is grappling with.

Second, the volta after the completion of the first stanza demarcates a drastic shift in idea and mood of the poem, from one of defeatism to hope. This indicates that the persona’s mental state in the first stanza is only the initial stage of a psychological progression. The use of punctuation makes the rhythm of the second stanza is more halting and compact, asserting an immediate change in tone as evident in the first two words, separated by a comma: “Soul, self;”. This immediately and starkly contrasts with the long run-on lines and enjambments of the first stanza, which symbolise the persona’s turbulent and unrelieved psychological state, whereas the frequent pauses and breaks in the second stanza demonstrate a sense of clarity and lucidity in thought, for example in the self-reassuring tone the persona adopts in addressing himself: “come, poor Jackself” and “I do advise / You, jaded, let be”. In this instance, he implores himself to “let be” and “call off” his tormented thoughts, as contrast to “let me more have pity on” and “let me live this sad self”, showing that the persona’s attitude towards his mental state has transformed from one of helplessness and entrapment to aspiration and hence, liberation. This letting go of his torment is further indicated by the sentiment to “leave comfort root-room” and “let joy size”, directly opposing the despondency of the unavailing struggle for comfort in the first stanza. The invocation of God – “God knows when to God knows what” demonstrates the persona’s emotional release of the afflictions that plague him, the summoning of faith and therefore commitment to being optimistic, lifting his now-excessive psychological burden. The idyllic, sanguine imagery of “skies / Betweenpie mountains” conjures up feelings of serenity, succor, and tranquility, contrasting the desolate and depraved atmosphere of the previous stanza. This new mindset supplants the old one, and the em dashes that give pause to the last line also serve to represent the persona’s emotional growth, as pauses indicate deliberation and a reckoning with one’s emotions, and the persona is in a sufficiently stable state of mind to temper his emotions with such steadiness. This is also starkly different from the first stanza, which has scarce punctuation and a continuous, almost self-perpetuating flow that symbolises the persona’s inability to contend with his misery. “Unforeseen times rather… lights a lovely smile” ends the poem on a hopeful and merry note, thus completing the persona’s transition from tortured self-pity and lowliness (the downcast tone creating the illusion of physical weight) to a state of elevation and high spirits, alluded to by the imagery of “skies” and “mountains”.

It is also notable that in the first stanza, the persona consistently uses the pronoun “I” as the descriptions are anchored to his own experiences, which demonstrates a short-sightedness and self-centeredness of perception absent in the second stanza, as the persona refers to himself as “Jackself” and the pronoun “You”, communicating his shift in self-recognition and an effective exercise of perspective.

In conclusion, Hopkins gives an intimate, narrative account of the persona’s psychological terrain and subverts the reader’s expectations by illustrating the persona’s spiritual revolution, thus displaying the malleability of the psyche and the persona’s strength of character and repressed attitude of optimism.

Lim Ruo Wei (18-O1)

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