Study Guide to Carrion Comfort
This poem, one of the so-called “terrible sonnets,” was probably written in August of 1885 and revised in September of 1887, during that difficult early time in Ireland. In Catholic doctrine, despair is considered a mortal sin because it indicates a belief that God cannot be trusted to help save one’s soul. In this sonnet, the speaker sets himself resolutely against suicide, the comfort of “choosing not to be,” of giving in to his impulse to do away with his flesh. He vows not to undo the last strands that hold him to humanity, although those strands may be very loosely connected. He does, however, feel confident to question God about why these terrible things are happening to him.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- What do you make of the title? How, for example, could despair be a “comfort,” and why is that comfort likened to “carrion”?
- The first quatrain (ll. 1-4) demonstrates the speaker’s resolve “not to choose not to be,” while in the next one (ll. 5-8) the speaker argues with God. This argument echoes the Book of Job, as you can see from these three complaints Job lodges against God:
- Job 10:16—“Thou huntest me as a fierce lion.”
- Job 7:8—“Thy eyes are upon me, and I shall be no more.”
- Job 9:17— “For he breaketh me with a tempest, and mulltiplieth my wounds without cause.”
How might these parallels enrich your understanding of the poem?
- In the sestet (ll. 9-14) the speaker tries to answer the great question: why is God tormenting him? The first possible answer has to do with threshing: wheat kernels are tossed into the air violently, in order that the outer husks (chaff) can be separated from the good grain. Do you find this explanation persuasive? What does it assume?
- The poem ends with this line: “I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” Here are two other Biblical allusions, to Jacob’s wrestling with God-as-angel (Genesis 32) and to Jesus’ last words from the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46). How might they also enrich your understanding of the poem?