Rao up to the challenge of ‘Carrion Comfort’

David Blake, professor of English, began the Close Reading Series last year, and he was overjoyed that at the first close reading of this year, the tradition was going to continue with Nagesh Rao’s attempt at dissecting a notoriously difficult poem.

The English department’s close readings have featured poems, segments of longer poems and small passages from prose. The literary selections are broken down and analyzed line by line, image by image and even word by word in some cases.

Rao, a professor of English, dived right into “Carrion Comfort,” one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems published posthumously. The poem is part of his collection of “Terrible Sonnets.” The sonnets aren’t terribly written, but their subject matter is horrible in nature, Rao said.

Right off the bat, Rao said, “I won’t be able to explore everything in detail – this is Hopkins we’re talking about.” And for anyone who has read or studied Hopkins’ poetry, it’s perfectly understandable. Hopkins style is as daunting as any of the greats.

The poem is seemingly about the narrator’s struggle with an unknown force putting him through all sorts of trials because of his struggles with faith. Rao divided the poem into five “movements” (though there are only three stanzas), or places where he saw the action in the poem change.

The first movement was made up of uncertainty – questions, negations and hesitations – which suggested it’s about the narrator’s will, Rao said. The second movement features the narrator questioning why the invisible force is tormenting him. The third contains one word at the beginning of the third stanza: “Why?”

If the poem ended there, Rao explained, everyone would have been happy for the narrator because he found peace. But the poem goes on and accuses God of being the tormentor. And it ends with the harrowing line, “Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

Rao interpreted the poem to be a reflection of the narrator’s anguish and his wonder at the end that all along he was fighting his God.

“No wonder that Hopkins kept his poetry safely away,” Rao said at the end of the reading. “He discovered that poetry is not far from blasphemy.”

Though it seemed odd for Rao, the College’s resident Marxist, to choose Hopkins, an Oxford-educated scholar and poet-turned-Jesuit priest who struggled greatly with the clash between his poetry and faith, there was apparently a method to the madness.

Blake said his office is next to Rao’s, and he always heard Rao having the most complex and interesting conversations with his students. Blake said he couldn’t wait for Rao to take on a poet as nimble, ingenious and extraordinarily difficult as Hopkins.

The turnout was impressive for the first event of the year and went very well despite some technical difficulties, as all of the Business Building’s microphone’s seemed to be missing.

“The School of Business’ microphones disappeared just like the stock market,” Blake quipped.