Study Guide to “No worst; there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.”
You don’t have to go past the first five words of this poem to know how badly the poet was feeling in that year of 1885, his first full year in Ireland. As a Jesuit, he was very familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the first week of which asks the retreatant to meditate on his or her experience of desolation, of what another saint called “the dark night of the soul.” Always subject to periodic bouts of depression anyway, Hopkins now felt that desolation deeply, and the result was a group of five poems often called the “terrible sonnets”—not an aesthetic judgment, but a description of how the poet felt. This poem is one of those sonnets.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- Hopkins loves to employ the multiple meanings of words. Take, for example, pitch in the first two lines. Do you see how he uses at least four of its meanings, i.e. the verb to throw or fling and the noun referring to tar, to slope (e.g. of a roof), and to tone in music (remember the pitch pipe your teacher used in school?). Taken together, what do these various meanings of pitch convey to us about the poet’s mood?
- The “Comforter” of line 3 is the Holy Spirit, the “Mary” of line 4 is the Blessed Virgin. Why would the poet want to invoke—and complain to—them in particular?
- Line 6 refers to “world-sorrow.” That in turn evokes a German word, Weltschmerz, which literally means “world-pain.” Weltschmerz is not a physical pain but rather a psychological and spiritual pain, caused by an awareness of how deep is the contrast between what we think the world should be and how it actually is. Does that shed any light on the poem?
- Most of the sestet (ll. 9-12) develops the image of the mountains of the mind, with the poet clinging to a cliff face by his fingertips. It’s a psychological stress he cannot endure for long. But then in the last two lines he does find some comfort (and remember how in line 3 he had said there was no comfort). What is this comfort? And how satisfying an answer does it seem to be?