Study Guide to “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”

Study Guide to “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”

This poem is undated, but was probably written during the first part of Hopkins’s Irish period, in 1884-85. It is one of the so-called “terrible sonnets” or “sonnets of desolation.” These sonnets were found in his notebooks after his death. With his 1884 arrival for his new teaching assignment in Dublin, Hopkins finds himself separated from his Anglican family and his English homeland. He also finds himself not at home among his Catholic, often Jesuit, brothers at University College and the Royal University of Ireland, because he is a convert to Catholicism and not an Irish “born Catholic,” and also because he feels politically estranged from a majority so vigorously supporting Irish home rule. Isolated and lonely, he is moved to write this poem.

Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:

  • As a sonnet, the poem is divided into an octave (two quatrains of four lines each) and a sestet of six lines. What specific separations is Hopkins talking about in the octet? What is the “third remove” that Hopkins mentions in the sestet?
  • Look carefully in lines 11-14 for instances of alliteration and internal rhyme. How do all these uses of alliteration and rhyme bind these lines together? How does this jumble of connected sounds and rhymes portray the confusion that Hopkins must have felt?
  • Hopkins often calls words from one part of speech into use in another part of speech. Seeing and hearing a word in an unusual context focuses the reader on the meaning of the word in this novel usage and its reason for being there. In the last line the word “began,” usually a verb, is used as a noun. What does this word suggest about how the poet feels at this moment? Why is the word in the past tense rather than the present tense? Why is it important that this word, “began,” is the ending word of the poem?

For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology:
alliteration | assonance | parallelism | sprung rhythm

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