In the sonnet, “Felix Randal,” Gerard Manley Hopkins remembers a local Liverpool blacksmith that he had ministered to. Thanks to the work of Alfred Thomas, we even know who inspired this poem. One of Hopkins’s parishioners, A Liverpool farrier by the name of Felix Spence, died after suffering from an illness in 1880.
Usually when reading this poem, we may think about it in terms of remembering the dead with Hopkins, and I’ve written about that here and here. But this week, we’re remembering Hopkins’s death, and with that in mind, I would like to look at this poem a little differently.
Felix Randal the farrier, O 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!
Like any Italian sonnet, this poem sets up a problem in the first eight lines and then undergoes a turn to offer some kind of solution in the last six. This form gives an extra weight to the ninth line. It becomes the central thought that the entire poem turns on: “This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.” Moving from “endears” to a doubled “us” back to “endears” is a chiasmus where words or concepts are repeated in a reverse order. The whole stanza becomes a chiastic structure when touch quenches tears of the farrier, which in turn produce tears that touch the heart of the poet.
Parallel structures like this turn us inward to the doubled word, emphasizing the relationship between the farrier, the poet, and the readers: us. Felix Spence ministered to Hopkins as much as Hopkins ministered to Felix Spence. They are both mutually endeared, and so are we as readers.
The chiastic structure of the poem filters into Hopkins’s own life in the next nine years. He who had once comforted the sick farrier, Felix Spence, also becomes sick. There are moments in the Terrible Sonnets when it seems as though he, too, is broken. But then he has the same “sweet reprieve and ransom / Tendered to him,” and dies saying that he is happy.
Just as Hopkins was endeared by seeing sick Felix Spence, we are endeared by seeing sick Fr. Gerard.
There’s this tradition of imagining founders of religious orders meeting their own at the gates of heaven. I would like to think that right next to Ignatius was the “hardy-handsome” Felix Spence. This time, poor Felix would wipe away Fr. Gerard’s tears, reversing and completing the structure as it comes full circle.