Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Gerard Manley Hopkins

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. [1]

Hopkins begins with a quotation from Israel's prophet, Jeremiah (12:1): "You are indeed just, Lord, if I dispute with you..." He then picks up a theme imbedded in the Old Testament wisdom literature: Why do sinners prosper? [2]

Hopkin's plea is more personal: "Why do sinners prosper while my efforts to do the right thing seem to end in disappointment and failure." It would appear that God, who had been his friend, was now his enemy. God could hardly do more to thwart and defeat him.

He contrasts his own frustration with the flourishing condition of those who live for the "sots and thralls of lust," who, in their "spare" moments, "thrive" more than one who has spent his entire life in the service of God.

Hopkins takes note of the lush "banks and brakes" (hedgerows and thickets) of the countryside which are showing the new growth of spring. He finds them thick with leaves and "laced" (interwoven) with "fretty (indented) chervil (parsley)"

He sees the plants shaken by fresh and refreshing winds. He thinks of birds building nests for their offspring: "Birds build-but not I build." He cannot create life. All he can do is "strain"-toil to produce one work that wakes. He is "Time's eunuch," sterile, useless, hopeless.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in Hopkins-in your own disillusionments and failures: You serve in some part of God's vineyard, but gather little fruit from your labor; you pray for years for a difficult spouse or rebellious child, but see no change in their behavior; you struggle with habitual sin and seem to make no progress. You ask, "Why must disappointment all I endeavor end?"

There is but one cure for us in all our discouragement: to look up to our Father's face-no more than that: "Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain." [3]


[1] The emphatic opening word of the last line, "Mine," modifies "lord of life."
[2] Job 9 and 21; Ecclesiastes 8:14; Psalm 49 and 73
[3] Or as Jesus would say, "We ought always to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1).

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