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With comment by John Birtwhistle
Felix Randal the farrier, O he is 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!
This sonnet was written in 18801 when the 35-year-old Hopkins was a Catholic priest in a slum parish of Liverpool. The subject can be identified2 as Felix Spencer, a blacksmith who for 2 years had been treated for pulmonary tuberculosis and died at the age of 31. That approximates to his life expectancy in Liverpool at the time,3 where the death rate was twice the English average and even worse in its more populous, malnourished and insanitary districts. The poem idealises a country trade which had thrived long before the misery of industrial cities.
The first line exclaims the finality and relief sensed by one whose loving duty had been to care for his dying parishioner. The ‘four disorders’ recall the Galenic theory of sickness as due to imbalance in four bodily humours4. The physical and mental decline of this once powerful man is fatal, but the priest brings his own kind of healing with the ‘sweet reprieve’ of Confession, Communion, and Anointment by oil in Extreme Unction.5
The poem is full of admiration and tenderness for the body—the young man in his vigour and sickness, the priest and his touching, the Eucharistic presence of the body of Christ, and even the horse. It accepts the bodily realities of sickness and care, and of touch and speech in the placebo effect. It also recognizes how caring may fulfil a need in carers themselves. His parishioner's need for comfort from him reaffirms Hopkins' own nature as a man, a priest and a poet. ‘This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears’: the reciprocity in the form and meaning of that line is a meditation on any carer's role.
The poem ends with such a magnificent glimpse of Felix Randal in his prime, that in imagination he is revived. ‘Random’ is a masonry term for ‘built with rough irregular stones’. ‘Sandal’ may be an heroic reference to the ancient Roman method of shoeing a horse, and it is also a particular type of horseshoe. To ‘fettle’ is to fit out, as well as to trim the edges of a metal artefact just as Hopkins is here rounding off his sonnet.
Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
London: Humphrey Milord, 1918
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