As Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-203) observed: “In times of crisis, poems are what people habitually reach for. [Its] formalized language can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus. Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others… have felt what we are feeling.” Addressing the nation on the afternoon of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a solemn and tearful President Obama summarized what he and all Americans were feeling on that dark day: “Our hearts are broken.” He ended his remarks quoting Scripture: “May God bless the memory of the victims and… heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.”
To paraphrase George Eliot, only in the agony of grief do we look into the depths of loss. Few poems can capture the unfathomable grief like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s powerful poem, No Worst. In just two short stanzas, the poet, who was a Jesuit priest, provides an unsettling glimpse of the pitch-black abyss of grief — full of despair, pain, and frustration with his faith that is powerless to provide any solace for his broken heart. After his lament, the poet — like Shakespeare’s Hamlet –longs for the sleep that comes at day’s end (although Hamlet ponders a more permanent form of sleep); to echo Hamlet: “to sleep… to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” And it is this sleep that the Newtown community will devoutly wish — for in that sleep what healing dreams may come — dreams of their precious children laughing, singing, and playing once again; their innocence restored, free at last from any mortal harm or heartache. May the Newtown community be eternally blessed with such sweet dreams until they are reunited in that eternal home years and years hence.
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems (1918)
For further reading: The Poem I Turn To: Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them edited by Jason Shinder, Sourcebooks (2008). Bartlett’s Poems for Occasions, edited by Geoffrey O’Brien; Little, Brown (2004). Hopkins Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets), Gerard Manley Hopkins, Knopf (1995).
When Your Child Dies: Tools for Mending Parents’ Broken Hearts by Avril Nagel and Randie Clark, New Horizon Press (2012)
The Mourner’s Book of Courage: 30 Days of Encouragement by Alan Wolfelt, Companion Press (2012)
Companioning the Grieving Child by Alan Wolfelt, Companion Press (2012)