Critical Estimate of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Sonnet, ‘Thou art indeed Just, Lord, if I contend’

  ‘Thou art indeed Just, Lord’ is one of the most widely known sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It shows, on the one hand, the deep faith of the poet, and holds, on the other, some of his pleadings and complaints. It is also rich in autobiographical elements. It further shows the technical skill of Hopkins.

  Hopkins was composed in Dublin on March 17, 1889, when the poet was going through a period of unhappiness, ill health, and spiritual desolation. It reflects his disappointment for his failure as a teacher and preacher, his serious doubts as regards the usefulness or moral value of his religious work in seeing sinners’ thriving and good men’s suffering and unsuccessful, and his deep mental depression at his waste of time and creative impotence.

The main thought of the poem may be briefly put thus: ‘The sonnet expresses a sense of bitter rebellion against God, who allows sinners to prosper while he, the servant of God, writhes beneath the consciousness of failure, frustration and creative barrenness.’

Hopkins admits that God is just, yet pleads in such a way that highlights His difference of treatment and special favours to sinners and the undeserving. He also questions the suffering. He metes out to persons like the poet who spend their lives on His cause. While drunkards and slaves of lust enjoy prosperity and happiness in their sober hours, the poet faces gloom, is prevented from success, and experiences a feeling of dryness. While birds build to express their inner joy, he cannot compose a poetic work that may last or inspire. Why should such things happen if God be just, he asks?
Hopkins’s pleading in support of his cause no doubt shows his daring and rebellious spirit. The only difficulty is that this spirit does not last long. His initial admission of God’s justness and his humble submission to God and prayer for sending his roots rain dilute his position as a rebel. He may only accept that he goes far, but far enough. It is the element of conflict that has highly enhanced the theatric access of the poem. The two ways of life—the devious way of sinners and the honest way of the pious— are presented face to face that results in the prosperity of the form and the failure of the latter. The poet’s attachment to nature and his attachment to God generate a tension in his mind and bring in a feeling of spiritual desolation and despair. We may also refer to the conflict between his desire to compose poems and his inner resolve not to do so for the sake of remaining more faithful to God, and between reason and faith.

The spiritual despondency of the poet is evident in two places of the poem—first when he attempts to question the justness of God’s ways and second when he calls God his ‘enemy’ though he immediately corrects himself by calling Him his ‘friend’. It is most evident when he states in a challenging mood that God could not do ‘worse’ in future than his present distress and defeat.

Hopkins’s earlier resolve not to compose poems unless specifically instructed so by his religious seniors and his failure to write a poetical work that ‘wakes’—a long cherished dream of his—give rise to a feeling of dryness which creates in him much unease and unrest. it was the time of his precious years without any solid production except some fragmentary pieces and his feeling of impotence on account of  the flight of inspiration create such disgust and frustration in him that he calls himself ‘Time’s eunuch’, one unable to create anything by seizing and ‘utilizing time. All he does is to ‘strain’. This focuses strongly on his state of mental condition and misery. As one trained long in the religious line he realizes at last that the only Being who could save him from such a situation is the ‘lord of life’..
Hence we are seeing praying for deliverance— for rain so that the root of his joyous poetic inspiration that gives a meaning to his life may revive again.

Hopkins’s attitude to nature is joyous and optimistic. His view of it is sacramental. Nature seems to him as the source through which the blessings of God may he witnessed and received. His description of banks and brakes overtopped with ‘fretty chervil’ is brief and poetic. His scientific outlook is revealed when he shows spring reviving the lush growth of plants end herbs and the urge of building n the birds. His attitude to man is gloomy and depressing. Sinners’ wa3s prosper while the ways of the devotees end in disappointment and suffering. Drunkards and lechers more thrive than those who spend their lives on God’s cause.

It is controversial whether the sonnet is a ‘terrible’ one. Some believe that it is a terrible Sonnet since we find the poet questioning the justness of the ways of God, looking askance at His unfair treatment of men and showing audacity enough to call Him his ‘enemy’. Because of this challenging spirit and spiritual despondency they call it a terrible sonnet. There are also some who do not think the sonnet to be so because of the poet’s prayer at the end which shows some form of hopefulness on his part, however meager it might be. While we agree with this we would like to point out that there is no guarantee that his hope would not be met nor can we deny his spiritual despondence and acute mental suffering which occupy the major part of the poem.

The poem shows the remarkable technical skill of the poet. It is written in iambic pentameter and variety has been introduced. With the help of spondee, pyrrhic and trochaic feet, Counterpointing, alliteration, and similar devices raise the melody of the verse. Irregular syntax, unfamiliar use of words such as addressing God as ‘Sir’‘, happy and novel diction such as ‘thralls of lust’, ‘Time’s eunuch’ etc , are use of familiar words in different senses such as breed, build, wake, roots, rain etc.  clearly show the technical and innovative mastery of the poet.

(The sonnet is really remarkable for its attention drawing thought, description of nature’s beauty, autobiographical elements spirit of conflict, tone of despondency, religions attitude, and technical skill.)