SOMETIMES a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
Men go by me whom either beauty bright 5
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.
Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end 10
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.
A helpful technique for interpreting poetry is to first determine the narrative situation of the poem. I grant that many poems don’t necessarily have a narrative situation, per se; after all, we’re talking about lyric, not story. Even so, poems have a context and often times this context is framed in a sort of narrative or an image that can be narrated or partially narrated.
Such is the case in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Lantern Out of Doors.” The first quatrain (series of four lines) lays out the situation or setting like this: the speaker observes that sometimes we see a lantern moving about in the night. Obviously, lanterns don’t just travel by themselves; someone carries them. (Hopkins is using a figure of speech here called “synecdoche,” which means that a part of something is used to stand for the whole of it. In this case, the lantern refers to the person carrying it.) When we see such a sight as a person moving about in the “darkness wide,” we might call out, “who goes there?” and wonder where they’re coming from and where they are “bound.” Can you picture this “setting” or situation in your imagination?
In the next quatrain (and into the tercet—the three lines—that follows), Hopkins moves to contemplation, considering people who have passed him by in life, or, likely, come in and then gone out of his life. These men are special in that they have a “beauty bright/ In mould or mind or what else makes rare.” In other words, these men are beautiful in their being—either physically or in terms of their character, as “mould” can imply—or in their ability to think and reason. With these beauties, such men “rain” against the “much-thick and marsh air.” Hopkins may be referring to the literal air of St. Bueno’s, where he was when he wrote the poem, but he seems to be referring to the world in general. People of all stripes of greatness “rain” against the “darkness” of life, shining their “Rich beams” of light into it, only to be bought—“consumed”—by “death or distance.” We may see them, and try to follow them with our eye as their “light” traverses the darkness, but eventually we cannot follow any longer. They drift out of sight and, thus, out of mind.
Some critics explain that Hopkins was lonely when he wrote this, longing for a friend who had passed by or through his life. Possibly, he is making reference to the fact that he felt that he was “out of the minds” of his friends and family (so his letters and journals say). But then, pushing on the meaning of “minds,” Hopkins shifts to Christ, who does “mind,” who does care, when friends don’t or when the poet himself cannot follow his friends and their lights. Christ’s eye can follow the darkness-traveling friend, his heart does want the friend, his care “haunts” the friend (is continually with him), his “foot follows” kindly the friend. Christ is the traveler’s ransom and rescue, he is the “first, fast and last friend.”
So we come to the end of the matter. People journey this life, pushing against the darkness only to be swallowed—bought up and/or consumed—by death or distance. But Christ is near. Christ is a friend, but not just any friend; he is the fastest and truest of friends. He is interested in and concerned for what he might approve (“avow”) in his friends, and what he might improve (“amend”) in them.
Such a friend Hopkins surely longed for. Such a one, you and I do long for. Such a one we have in Christ.