Felix Randal by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Summary and Analysis
Felix Randal is an Italian sonnet. In this sonnet, Hopkins talks about a thirty-one-year-old blacksmith (farrier) named Felix Randal’s lengthy illness and death. While a curate in a slum parish in Liverpool, Father Gerard Manley Hopkins visited him frequently, administered the final sacraments, and presided over his funeral.
Hopkins depicts the progression of the farrier’s disease in the opening quatrain, describing how the large man faded away until his mind became jumbled and four distinct disorders conspired to kill him.
The poet considers Felix’s spiritual situation in the second quatrain. The farrier initially lamented the loss of his former strength, but as his religious faith grew, he became more patient. He obtained “the sweet reprieve and ransom” through the Holy Commission sacrament, which bears the promise of forgiveness and new life. Hopkins anointed him with holy oil throughout the following years. The poet begs God to pardon any sins perpetrated by the farrier.
The poet states in the sestet that caring for the sick can endear a priest in two ways: first, he may get heartfelt thanks from those he tends; and second, knowing he is doing something valuable may help him feel less dissatisfied with himself.
The poem illustrates two different sorts of strength: the farrier’s physical strength at the forge and the priest’s spiritual strength as he worked among the sick and dying.
Stanza Wise Analysis
Stanza 1 Line 1
Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
farrier – Blacksmith whose main job is the shoeing of horses. A physically demanding job.
Hopkins’ reaction to the news that Felix is dead is neither sorrow nor joy but a comment that Hopkins own duty toward Felix is “all-ended”.
O is he dead then – the tone is casual as if he was talking to somebody who has just informed him of the death of Felix. He appears unmoved at hearing of Felix’s death.
my duty all ended – his first thoughts are about himself. His duty as a priest has ended. Duty suggests that he had attended to the last rites simply because that is what a priest was supposed to do. This creates a sense of detachment.
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?
He does not go on to speak of the good times in the man’s life, but rather how his greatness diminished. He describes how he has watched the physical decline of this man.
watched – He has been present and saw how the sickness has changed the dead man.
mould of man –A mould is used to make copies of something. He was the perfect example of man. It is ironic that, as a result of his illness, he loses his shape like a piece of metal in the forge.
big-boned and hardy-handsome – He was well-built, powerful and good looking ruggedly.
The physical power of the man is emphasised by the repeated alliteration in the line ‘his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome’.
Pining, pining – the alliteration emphasises the rapid decline in his condition. He was wasting away. He also yearned for a time that is past, when he was healthy.
till time when reason rambled in it – when he became ill his thoughts became confused/ delirious.
Fatal four disorders – refers to four of the deadliest diseases in the 19th century. These included cholera, polio, smallpox and tuberculosis (consumption). Felix died as a result of a combination of these.
fleshed there, all contended – The personification of his illness fighting over the physical body of the poor man, like ravenous animals, gives a vivid picture of the process that destroyed him.
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!
The second stanza concentrates on Felix as the object of Hopkins’ ministries. The focus is not on the dying man, but on Hopkins’ work with the man.
Sickness broke him – The image of being ‘broken’ is appropriate since he worked with horses. Horses are broken when they are trained to serve people’s purpose; now this man has been broken by sickness. He is no longer functioning as in the past.
Impatient, he cursed at first – His first reaction, a very human response, is to curse his misfortune. The word ‘impatient’ emphasises that he unable to endure this sickness. He expected to recover very quickly. He could not come to terms with being ill that he was going to die. He was very frustrated in the way that the illness was impacting on his life because he had never been seriously ill before.
but mended – Felix is ‘mended’ not in any physical sense, but in the spiritual sense. Hopkins’s ministry brought about a change of heart: he became attuned to God’s will. While his physical body suffered, his mind ‘mended’.
Being anointed and all – Hopkins anointed him with holy oil (rubs oil on the head of the person who is about to die – Christians believe that this will ensure the dying person’s salvation) and performed the Last Rites. He finally accepted that he was going to die. The final sacrament is meant to prepare one’s soul to enter heaven.
a heavenlier heart began some Months earlier – he began to turn his thoughts towards his inevitable destination and made peace with his fate. The sickness lasted several months and during that time his attitude changed. He began to accept his mortality and started making preparations to meet his maker a while before his death.
sweet reprieve and ransom – this refers to Confession and Communion. Ransom refers to the Christian belief Jesus sacrificed himself for mankind. The priest had given him all that was necessary to help his soul return to heaven.
Tendered – Pun: Double meaning – to perform a function or render a service. Hopkins renders a service tenderly.
Ah well … – tone of resignation. Hopkins knows that he cannot do more to help Felix. The poet implores God to forgive any sin the farrier must have committed.
Stanza 3 (First Tercet)
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;
endears them to us, us too it endears – The sestet reflects the situation presented in the octet. The change of mood is evident in the first line. Not only did the blacksmith benefit from the priest’s ministry, but the priest, too, received the grace of a kind from his contact with the sick man. Seeing the sick and coming in constant contact with them helps us to feel compassion towards them and at times love. But this is not all, in this process we become better people and we are “endeared” towards God and those around us. We become more “loved” by those around us.
My tongue had taught thee comfort – He has given the dying man the comfort and solace through the words he has spoken. For this reason, Felix ‘endears’ himself to his priest because he listens to his spiritual advice and takes ‘comfort’ from it.
touch had quenched thy tears – His physical comforting has helped stop the man’s tears.
Thy tears that touched my heart – In turn, the tears of the farrier touch the heart of the priest.
child, Felix, poor Felix Randal – The childlike simplicity and vulnerability of this ‘big-boned and hardy-handsome’ man moved the heart of the little priest. The priest is sympathetic (poor) towards Felix. The powerful farrier is now almost child-like in his dependence on those who are taking care of him. Felix was a big, strong man. Now he is as weak as a child.
Stanza 4 (Second Tercet)
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!
How far from then forethought of – The poet is looking back to the days when the farrier was in his prime and how distant the thought of death seemed then. The man that he sees is nothing like the man who was young and strong and happy.
Felix was lively (boisterous). However, as he approached death, he seemed the exact opposite: weak, cursing, and unlikeable.
random grim forge – the forge was built with stones of irregular shapes and sizes. When he was healthy he worked at the forge, which was very hot.
grim – it was black because of the smoke, soot and grime. Working at the forge was difficult.
powerful amidst peers – He was highly respected.
fettle – to prepare. In this case, he was making shoes to fit the horse.
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse – The alliteration emphasizes the size of the horse. A “dray” is a cart for carrying heavy loads so a drayhorse has to be large and strong.
Sandal – is an archaic term for the new iron shoes for the horse
bright and battering – onomatopoeia – this creates the sound of the horse’s hooves in as it trots noisily on new steel sandals
bright – it is new, battering – happening constantly
• Inevitability of death
• The acceptance of death
• The role of religion
• It is paradoxical that physically strong men find it difficult to accept death.
Compassion, sorrow, pity, remorse, acceptance, Detached/matter-of-fact then Endearing
Mood: (Readers emotions from reading the text) Relief, sympathy, impatience, acceptance, comfort, admiration, ends with a triumphant + fiercely energetic mood