Felix Randal Critical Appreciation
Felix Randal is the first of Hopkins’ Liverpool poems, and introduces Lancashire dialect expressions. No other poem records such success in his priestly function or such delight in a fellow man. The present poem recognises the individuality of Felix Randal and raises him into an almost heroic type.
Felix Randal stands out among the poems of Hopkins’s ministry with some force. Not only does it register his delight at being spiritually helpful to one of his parishioners, but it also contrives to recognize the individuality of the man while presenting him as an almost heroic type. His attitude too seems to be something of that wandering love and awe with which he regarded nature earlier and which he recommends in “To What serves Mortal Beauty”, rather than the indulgent: condescension with which he looks at the “Brothers” or the boy of “the Handsome Heart”.
If Felix Randal had something of the childlike innocence which Hopkins found so attractive, this is won by the man with the help of the priest. It is the joy at the part he played in this process from fallen man to redeemed innocence which Hopkins conveys most strongly. Again the poem progresses through contrasts, the two quatrains of the octave depicting the movement from strength to weakness in his huge physical presence, and from weakness to strength in his spiritual condition. This is emphasized by the use of ‘mended’ in line 5:
“Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended.”
The word is used in the Lancashire dialect of someone getting better from illness. This dialect is also used “in and all”, ‘all road ever’ and ‘fettle’.
In line 9, the ‘seeing the sick‘ suggests the twofold meaning of sickness–the physical and the spiritual, and for Hopkins the spiritual cure had been something which made him too richer and more worthy. He had been the agent of Felix Randal’s recovery of childlike innocence, yet the poem is saved from merely seeming a portrait of touching usefulness because it turns in its last three lines back to the prime of his life when the farrier is at work, without conscious thought performing his activity. As Hopkins wrote in his notes, ‘It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.’
Thus, the apparent turn from the spiritual to the physical again is rather a method of seeing Felix Randal in both aspects of his life fulfilling his duty – it is significantly his own duty that Hopkins refers to in the first line, rather than to his love. The duty of shoeing which the farrier performs is resonant with echoes of other of Hopkins’s poems: God in The Wreck of the Deutschland ‘With an anvil-ding/And with fire’ forged his will in man (stanza 10), Christ’s shculder is seen as ‘a stallion stalwart in “Hurrahing in Harvest.” Felix Randal’s mortal beauty had a function as much as his subsequent spiritual beauty and it is this completeness of the man which the poet manages to capture, leaving the reader with the strength and beauty of the last image.
Prof. Gardner calls this poem ‘superb’. But Mr. Russell holds a different view about it. He says that in it the poet’s description of the long-drawn out illness and death (of Felix Randall seems curiously nonchalant. According to him, if it be argued that it is the technique which is superb, then one can only feel that
“a technique which makes a writer lose his grip on the essential nature of his subject matter is a very dangerous one indeed.”
It is impossible to read, he goes on, the death-news of Felix Randal with any show of feeling-the casualness of reporting almost parodies itself. Moreover, the first thought which crosses Hopkins’s mind on the news is ‘my duty all ended’. There is a kind of ’emotional inadequacy’ about it. He is unable to identify himself with the man, to sense the horror that Felix Randal must have felt as his strength ebbed away. At the most, Hopkins’ feeling for the man is that of a man for a child.