This sonnet, written in 1880, is about Felix Randal, a parishioner who died of tuberculosis at the age of 31, and Hopkins, who attended him on his deathbed. The poem contrasts the wasted and dying man with the lusty youth while working at his forge some years before. Just as Felix Randal pounded iron in his forge to make a sandal, his soul is being pounded into perfection by illness and pain. However, the poem also discusses Hopkins’ responsibilities as a parish priest and the mutually beneficial relationship between a priest and his parishioners.
The poem’s first eight lines vividly depict the dying man – he is irritable and anxious in the early stages of his illness, but his temper improves as his trust in Christ and the hope of redemption grows stronger. The final six lines bring the bond between the dying man and the priest into perspective – if the dying man feels confident of redemption as a result of the priest’s Extreme Unction, the priest often evolves spiritually as a result of coming face to face with illness and death. Additionally, the poem starts with ‘Felix Randal’ and concludes with the rhyming sandal’, as if the entire poem were contained within phonic parentheses. The ‘al’ sound appears at almost regular intervals in the poem.
A word about the terms ‘inscape,’ ‘in stress,’ and ‘sprung rhythm’: Hopkins refers to a thing’s ‘inscape’ as its style, pattern, or fundamental unity. He found his primary goal in poetry to be capturing this inscape. Additionally, he coined the term ‘instress’ to refer to the energy that underpins this unity or inscape. Stress is a term that refers to the force that sustains an inscape and transmits it to the poet’s or observer’s mind. ‘Sprung rhythm’ refers to a return to the rhythms of speech and earlier styles of verse with the use of accent or stress scanning rather than syllable counting.