Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.
THOU art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavéd how thick! lacéd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; 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.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, March 17 1889
One of the last poems Hopkins wrote, classically Petrarchan in form, this sonnet takes up and then expands on the words of Jeremiah the Prophet in the Vulgate version of the Old Testament to express Hopkins' frustration at the lack of success in his "works" -- presumably, his poetry itself -- while others less devoted than himself prospered. In a letter to Robert Bridges he says that the poem should be read adagio molto, with great stress. The failure that Hopkins felt, and that seems to be at the back of the poem, was a triple one: his poems were not, or very rarely, accepted by the Jesuit order, of which he had long been a member, as consistent with the practice of their faith; with very few exceptions, people outside the order who were exposed to his poetry found it strange, repellent and scarcely comprehensible; and during the latter part of his life, when he was stationed in Dublin at the embryonic Catholic University (now University College, Dublin), far from his friends and family, overworked and in poor health, he found it difficult to compose anything at all.
In putting the Prophet's words into his own mouth to complain of his lack of literary success, particularly in an aesthetic matter such as poetry where one should hardly expect one's God to shower rewards on those faithful to His discipline, Hopkins might be approaching the sin of hubris. Lines 3-4 also come perilously close to self-pity and querulousness, and the later phrases "I that spend, sir, life upon thy cause" and "Mine, send my roots rain" have somewhat of a note of self-justification and selfish pleading.
However, the poem is written in a very universal way, completely avoiding specific reference to Hopkins' personal situation: it gives eloquent expression, not just to neglected rhymesters, but to anyone who has laboured hard and practiced self-denial in the service of an ideal, only to fare no better -- in fact worse -- than those who have no such devotion. Taken in this general way, the poem is no inferior to Jeremiah himself on the question of whether and how a faithful and obedient Christian should expect, or receive, any favours from God, or whether the hardships and injustices such a person suffers are inevitable parts of His plan and not to be questioned. This problem, closely related to the Problem of Evil, Hopkins does not solve, but expresses in acute and personal fashion.
The lines "Wert thou my enemy," etc., vividly display the tensions of Hopkins' relationship with his God. He sees his lack of good fortune as ordained by God, to the extent of almost calling Him an enemy (the word adversary sometimes was used to refer to the Devil), but stops short of an outright accusation. The tension is already present in the quotation from Jeremiah: although God is just, the world created by Him is unjust, and Man can justly complain of it. Hopkins' faith was plenty strong enough to bear the strain of believing in such a God, and he, like Jeremiah, could not stifle his questions under the weight of injustice. It was consistent with Christian humility for him to plead his own case, and pray for a change of fortune, as long as he did not usurp the position of the Judge.
The section of the poem from "See, banks and brakes" through Line 13 moves to a different topic: it is a poignant illustration of Hopkins' creative drying-up compared to the eternal untroubled creativity of Nature. One can imagine Hopkins walking among the spring greenery (although mid-March is a little early for there to be very much growth) and regretting his own lack of achievement. Interestingly, as in his last sonnet, Hopkins uses procreation as a metaphor for artistic creation: in contrast with the birds building (their nests), he calls himself a "eunuch" and says he cannot "breed one work that wakes" -- meaning either infertility or stillbirth.
The just-so answer to Hopkins' question and prayer is that devotion and religious discipline are rewarded after death, and hardships are sent by God as a trial to be overcome by faith. In his case, posthumous justice operated all too efficiently: some decades after his death in an insanitary Dublin town house, his poems were brought to publication by Robert Bridges and soon acclaimed as the most innovative and individual of the Victorian period: his reputation now stands equal with Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne. In the light of this success, Hopkins' complaint appears misplaced. But it's likely that his poetic genius wouldn't have matured and developed as it did if he had had an easier and more obviously "successful" career, or even known of his destiny as the subject of a thousand English Literature dissertations. Although no-one would wish hardships on Hopkins for the sake of a better poem, the God of poetry probably knew what He was doing by giving Hopkins the grit of frustration around which to form his poem.