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Christian Life Gerard Manley Hopkins Literature Poetry

“I Know the Sadness”

PhD work can be life-sucking. When this life-sucking work is added to the normal pressures of family and work, it can easily overwhelm the best of us. For a while, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why that was true for me, but I think I figured it out. PhD work had crowded out a lot of the stuff I enjoy. One casualty was the joy and pleasure of reading.

I realized that I didn’t read for pleasure anymore. Therefore, I decided to make an effort to incorporate into my life more of what I enjoy. One small way I have done this is by changing my bedtime routine. Now, every night before I go to sleep, the last thing I do is read a poem by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Doing this allows my brain to shift gears, relax, and do something I enjoy. In doing so, I’ve realized that in Hopkin’s works there is a lot which would beneficial to Christians and the Christian life. I’ll make reference to Christian truth when I feel like it, but won’t in every post. Instead, I’ll let the lines of Hopkins and my own thoughts prod you to think.

The first of this series is included below. 


But most in a half-circle watch’d the sun;
And a sweet sadness dwelt on everyone;
I knew not why, – but know that sadness dwells
On Mermaids – whether that they ring the knells
Of seamen whelm’d in chasms of the mid-main,
As poets sing; or that it is a pain
To know the dusk depths of the ponderous sea,
The miles profound of solid green, and be
With loath’d cold fishes, far from man – or what; –
I know the sadness but the cause know not.

– from “A Vision of the Mermaids,” lines 116-125

In this poem, Hopkins is describing the mermaids and how some of them are behaving. He turns his attention to the majority of them who are watching the sun. He notices a “sweet sadness” dwelling. He can’t pinpoint the cause, but he knows sadness when he sees it. Why are those mermaids sad? Are they sad because they are so familiar with death? Is it because they are the ones who “ring the knells,” that is, they play the funeral bell for seamen who perish in the “mid-main” (middle of the ocean)?

Or are they sad, because they know the wonderful secrets of the deep but have no others to share with whom you may share that knowledge of the “dusk depths” and the “miles of profound solid green?” Despite having this wonderful knowledge, they are cursed to live among the “loath’d, cold fishes,” far from man–is this what makes them sad?

I was most struck by the last line in the section quoted above: “I know the sadness but the cause know not.” We’ve all experienced that moment when we’ve discerned sadness on someone’s face. We are all familiar with sadness and we know the look. We know the look so well that we can see in others. We know what despair and sadness looks like on the face because we’ve seen it in the mirror.

For Hopkins, he theorizes that they are sad because they are so familiar with death (the death of the sailors), and have no one to share, or they are so familiar with the depths (the secrets of the ocean), and have no one to share? We cannot know for sure. Hopkins himself admits that he knows not the cause. We may never know either. What we do know… is the sadness.

And we know the hope. The mermaids stare at the sun and yet have a sad countenance. No hope is truly offered to the mermaids. We never know if their sadness has purpose or if it finds resolution.

While the mermaids suffer an unconquerable separation between them and man, we see that we ourselves are not that different than the mermaids. Like when we look at still water, we see in the mermaids reflections of ourselves.

We too are surrounded by death and it’s enough death to bring sadness. We live with the wages of our sin and the results of a sin and death in a fallen world. But we also know death has no more victory and no more sting (1 Cor 15:55).

Believers can also identify with the longing of the mermaids for a higher – or, to be more correct, a fuller – form. The mermaids are with the fishes and they are part fish, but desire to be fully human. Similarly, often as a believer we feel that we are simul justus et peccator – simultaneously justified and sinner. Do we not also long for the day when we’re fully human, when we’re no more “half-creatured,” when we’re the fishy, fleshy part of us is no more. Perhaps this is why we know the sadness.

Paul knows something of this struggle common to men and mermaids. “Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7:24-25). 

We know the sadness but know we also know the hope. We long to be fully what we were created to be. Like the mermaid we long to be fully human, to be fully the highest form of ourselves. We long to leave the cold, dead part of our flesh and exchange it for that body that never perishes. 

We have that hope, as Paul says, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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