Time’s Eunuch by Bob Ritzema

Time’s Eunuch by Bob Ritzema

What does it mean to be “time’s eunuch”? That phrase is found in a sonnet written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in March, 1889, just a few months before he died. The sonnet, which can be found here, was proceeded by a verse in Latin from Jeremiah. In the Douai-Rheims translation used by Catholics in Hopkins’ day (my source for this is the blog Hokku), the verse read:

“Thou indeed, O Lord, art just, if I plead with thee, but yet I will speak what is just to thee: Why doth the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly?” (Jer. 12:1)

 The prophet affirms the justice of God while at the same time asking how it is that evildoers do so well.  Hopkins asks the same question, but quickly personalizes the situation by comparing the success of the wicked with his own lack of accomplishment:

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Hopkins’ time as a parish priest had been inauspicious, his stint at teaching a total failure. His poems had attracted little attention. Though he was only 44 years old, his health was deteriorating and it must have seemed to him that he would die having failed in all he attempted.

He turns his attention to nature, where he witnesses the lushness of plants leaving again in early spring:

See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them;

Their fecundity contrasts with his own barrenness:

….birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

In contrast to the trees and bushes showing life again after hibernating, Hopkins’ evaluation of his own life’s work is harsh. None of it shows signs of having survived the winter. I imagine his time of winter could either have been the experience of despair he had been through (see his sonnets of desolation) or his own anticipated death.

What, though, does Hopkins mean by calling himself “time’s eunuch”? According to Merriam-Webster, a eunuch is “a castrated man placed in charge of a harem or employed as a chamberlain in a palace” Hopkins was not of course a eunuch in this sense, but he may have had in mind one of the secondary definitions–“one that lacks virility or power.” Perhaps he is referring to his vows as a Jesuit priest; by committing himself to lifelong celibacy, he was eschewing reproductive virility or power. But if it is the priesthood that he means, why not say “God’s eunuch” rather than “Time’s eunuch”? In what way did time make a eunuch of him?

Perhaps time makes eunuchs of all of us. Virility and power aren’t lifelong possessions, and, as we age, they are likely to ebb. There are those among us–mostly alpha males–who boast of having retained potency even while the rest of us have yielded to time’s demands. Thus, we have geriatric body-builders, ads touting the miraculous powers of various supplements, and executives who hold onto control well into their 90s. Those who fight loss tooth-and-nail may look as if they are exemplars of aging successfully. This is a battle they are bound to lose eventually, though, and the continued unwillingness to accept this reality eventually looks rather pathetic. Better to delay time’s encroachments with modest efforts but at the same time be cognizant of where the road we are on will eventually lead.

Ray Moon, an 86-year-old bodybuilder. Fighting time.

Hopkins was not one to deny the decline that accompanies age. To the contrary, he seems to have been too pessimistic and despairing about his capacities. His late poems, including this one, show the continuing vitality of his creative intellect. Somewhere between denial and despair, there is a middle ground characterized by satisfaction with one’s life to date and acceptance of what lies ahead. That is something we all should seek. Perhaps the poem’s last line is a request that he reach that place of contentment:

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

If Hopkins was asking for such peace of mind, his request may have been granted. His last words were reportedly:

“I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life.”

By Bob Ritzema

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