Study Guide to Felix Randal
From December 1879 to August 1881, Hopkins was a parish priest at St. Francis Xavier’s in Liverpool. His time was spent mostly in overcrowded and unsanitary slums, which he called “of all place the most museless.” The sonnet “Felix Randal” is one of only three poems Hopkins wrote during this time. While many of Hopkins’s works are suffused with his spirituality and religious understanding of the world, this is one of only a few poems that feature the actual daily work of a priest.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- While “Felix Randal” is a sonnet in the sense that it consists of fourteen lines divided into an octave and sestet, this poem uses alexandrines (six foot lines). And because of Hopkins’s use of sprung rhythm, the lines contain even more syllables than typical alexandrine lines. What is the effect of these long, meandering lines on the poem as a whole?
- The poem describes the increasingly close, transformative relationship between the speaker/priest and “Felix.” How do the various forms of the words “endear,” tears,” and “touch” illustrate the two-way exchange at the poem’s center?
- Should we read the poem as autobiography? Hopkins did have experiences similar to that described in the poem, and one of his parishioners was a blacksmith named Felix Spencer who died at age 31 of pulmonary tuberculosis (often called “consumption” in those days). Nevertheless, Hopkins chose the name Felix Randal, not Felix Spencer, for this poem. Why might he have done this? What is gained or lost in reading the poem as autobiography?
- In the final tercet we see Felix not as “sickness broke him” but as he was in his “more boisterous years.” Why this look backward? Is it a sentimental or nostalgic? Or is it a sign of acceptance of Felix’s life and death? Or…?