- “Felix Randal the farrier”: Visiting the Sick
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “Felix Randal” while stationed at the Jesuit church St. Francis Xavier in Liverpool, and he dated the sonnet “April 28 1880.” Nine decades later, Alfred Thomas, S.J., announced in the Times Literary Supplement that Hopkins had entered in the church notice book the name of one “Felix Spencer,” who died on 21 April 1880, and had read his name from the pulpit on Sunday, April 25.1 Spencer was a blacksmith or farrier whose shop was in the slum area of the parish; as a priest, Hopkins had visited him to bring him the sacraments and consolation since his assignment to the parish on 30 December 1879. The poet changed the name to “Randal” to hide the man’s true identity but perhaps had in mind “Lord Randal my son,” the subject of a popular medieval ballad. Although the poem is a sonnet, it also serves as an elegy and dramatic monologue and ballad dealing with the subject of death. Hopkins pictures himself just at the moment of hearing the news of the farrier’s death:
Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsomePining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and someFatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?
Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mendedBeing anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began someMonths earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransomTendered 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!(PW, p. 165) [End Page 197]
Much of the critical analysis has focused on Hopkins’s priestly role, some critics finding it remote at one extreme and sentimental at the other, while others praise the poem for being warm, caring, and highly personal. In an early defense of the sonnet, W. H. Gardner suggests that “Felix Randal” should “strike home by reason of its purely human qualities”; he finds that the final “lines embody the grand apotheosis—the permanent spiritual value of physical beauty and useful work well done.”2 Furthermore, Gardner takes E. E. Phare to task for her negative reading, and he quotes George Orwell’s assertion that it is “the best short poem in the language” (1: 232–234, 2: 306). In contrast, W. A. M. Peters faults the poem for its “forced emotionality” and strained verbal effects.3 Daniel Harris conjectures that the poem foreshadows disappointments in Hopkins’s vocation: “the farrier has cheated the priest by dying in his absence.”4 For John Robinson, although he is critical of the sonnet, it is important among Hopkins’s poems as “his sole attempt at writing of the personal experience of death.”5 Philip Endean, S.J., finds in it “the failure actually to achieve an idiom in which the priest could relate to Felix.”6 Paul Mariani, on the other hand, argues that the “success of the poem rests on our acceptance of the priest-speaker’s sincerity and intelligence.”7 Michael Allsopp praises the text’s singularity: “‘Felix Randal’ possesses a singular tone and mood that set it apart from any other sonnet in the poet’s corpus. More than any other lyric this bears the stamp of the poet as priest.”8
The purpose of this study is to read the poem in the light of the Christian tradition of visiting the sick. “Be not slow to visit the sick,” the Old Testament advises, “for by these things thou shalt be confirmed in love” (Ecclesiastes 7: 39).9 “This seeing the sick” embraces not just the poet’s sacerdotal obligations but also the prescribed duty of all Christians to...