A Retreat with Hopkins: The Third Hour

“The Dark Morning”

This is the black day when
Fog rides the ugly air:
Water wades among the buildings
To the prisonder’s curled ear.

The rain, in thin sentences,
Slakes him like danger,
Whose heart is his Germany
Fevered with anger.

This is the dark day when
Locks let the enemy in
Through all the coiling passages of
(Curled ear) my prison!

– Thomas Merton

For this morning’s retreat, we’re being a little anachronistic since Hopkins is Merton’s predecessor as priest-poet. We know from Seven Storey Mountain that Merton read and “became absorbed in the poetry of Hopkins.” He even wrote a poetic response to Hopkins. You can read more about that connection here.

Written in 1939, this is one of Merton’s war poems. That explains why Germany is internalized as the prisoner’s self-antagonizing heart. In “Landscapes of Disaster,” Patrick O’Connell finds a paradoxical sense of hope in the transition from the third person to the first person pronoun:

But in the final words of the poem the speaker no longer refers to “his” but to “my prison.” He has recognized that the condition he had analyzed in the first two stanzas also applies to himself – he too is imprisoned by his anger, longing for the dark rain’s “thin sentences” to penetrate the “coiling passages” of his own ears. He has realized, as Merton repeatedly emphasizes in his prose works from this same period, that as a sinner he shares in the culpability for the conditions that have made the war possible. This evidence of self-knowledge is then, paradoxically, a slight but genuine countersign to the hopelessness that has dominated the poem up to this final confession.

Even dark mornings have some glimmer of hope, some small “countersign to the hopelessness.”

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