Felix Randal the farrier, O is he 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!
Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
this seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears
‘Hit’ is perhaps the wrong word. ‘Nudged’ might be better. ‘Us too it endears’ … is that what sickness does? Endear us to God? And is that what God was nudging me to see?
Hopkins says of the once strong farrier Felix that ‘sickness broke him’ but that ‘he mended’ with time and Hopkins tenderness. Hopkins does seen to have been made tender by the encounter. But I find something ambiguous in the poem. If Hopkins is ‘endeared’ by the ‘tears that touched’ his heart what is that last stanza doing extolling the former Felix, ‘powerful amidst peers’, ‘fettling’ that ‘bright and battering sandal’? It doesn’t sound like a lament for lost glory. It sounds like praise and wonder. Is Hopkins moved by ‘seeing the sick’ or ‘all the more boisterous years’. Or is it Hopkins love of ‘dappling’ and contrast that is at play here?
There is something of the play of strength and weakness at work in this poem: the contrast between ‘big-boned and hardy-handsome’ and ‘tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal’. As though ‘the heavenlier heart’ that Felix comes to is more impressive for the impatience and cursing that preceded it.
What is it like reading this poem — one I have long loved — from a place of chronic illness? In a word — disturbing. I am not sure I admire it very much any more! Or, at least, I don’t own it any more. Partly it feels like an ill-fitting template — this is terminal illness being theologised — and that makes a poor pattern for the experience of chronic illness. Part of the experience of being chronically ill is that the double-vision of the poem that Hopkins celebrates is forgotten. Your sickened self is the only one at hand. The memory of being ‘powerful amidst peers’ is a private one for grieving over from time to time. The outsider sees none of that.
A tiny example… people say ‘Hello! How are you?’ and every time I am faced with not knowing how to answer. Leaving aside the way convention operates (I know I am not being asked for a full account) there is the fact that I genuinely do not know what to say. How am I? I remember — barely some days — what full functioning was like for me. I can recall being ‘powerful amidst peers’. I remember having great desires, as Ignatius would say. My high-water mark these days is maybe 30% of that previous experience. So every time I say ‘fine’ I feel I betray that former self, however mildly.
But one of the transitions in being sick that helped me a lot was reaching the point where I decided that I couldn’t wait to be ‘better again’ but that I could go on living my life the way it is given to me, and living as well as possible. And largely I do — I have recalibrated the scale so that the 30% is my new normal — and that’s how I measure ‘how I am’. How am I? Well today the asthma is bothering me after the chest infection and that scares me. The last few days I have been feeling dizzy and nauseous towards evening. My lower back and my neck are hurting more than usual. Otherwise I am OK. I am getting about a bit more, enjoying being in Oxford, a bit sad that there is not much I am capable of ‘fettling’ right now, let alone a ‘bright and battering sandal’. Enjoying hearing the bells of Oxford this morning.
I guess ‘fine’ covers it — but it contains another betrayal — not of my former self but of my present self.
This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
‘Seeing’ and ‘seeing the sick’ are at the heart of Hopkins’ poem but invisibility is part of the burden of chronic illness. Everyone with chronic illness knows the experience of feeling lousy and being told how well we look. It is usually meant well but it can feel alienating, corrosive. Asserting one’s visibility is problematic too. Rightly, the ones around us calibrate their scale by what they see in the medium term. If someone is acutely ill — common cold, broken leg, etc — we see a change, we extend sympathy, give help, we want to know how someone is. But, as Bateson said, it is difference that makes a difference. And it is the lack of difference in chronic illness that makes the illness invisible. When we force the issue of visibility — tell the story of our illness — we run the risk of alienating those around us. Hell, our illness bores us too!
Talking about chronic illness feels transgressive — as if we are allowed into polite healthy society on the condition that we pretend. Even sitting here writing this my internal critic is trying to shut me up — ‘quit whining’ it says.
I am taking comfort in knowing that Hopkins himself grappled with invisibility and lent it eloquence:
St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
Laybrother of the Society of Jesus
Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.