“Felix Randal” is a sonnet with an Italian or Petrarchan rhyme scheme (abba, abba, ccd, ccd); although not published until 1918, it was written in 1880. The title character is known from extrinsic evidence to have been a thirty-one-year-old blacksmith named Felix Spencer, who died of pulmonary tuberculosis; Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, while a curate in a slum parish in Liverpool, visited him often, administered the last sacraments, and officiated at his funeral.
Hence the poem is largely romantic self-expression. There is little or no ironic separation between the “I” (the speaker within the poem) and the author (the historical Hopkins outside the poem), so the “I” may be taken as a Roman Catholic priest reflecting
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Next, grace impacts the world of the poem, that of traditional Roman Catholic belief and practice, through the sacraments—three of which appear explicitly. As the old name suggests, Extreme Unction was not given until death was imminent. A deeper flashback then recalls the “reprieve and ransom” Father Hopkins had “tendered” to Felix; these are the sacraments of Penance (confession), by which the penitent is reprieved from the judgment he faced, and the Eucharist (Communion), where the communicant receives the very Body of Christ, the ransom given on the cross in the passion and on the altar at Mass: “the Man Christ Jesus, who gives Himself as ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6; see also Mark 10:45). Hence the “tongue” and “touch” of line 10 refer less to comforting talk and handshakes and more to the sacramental form (the ritual formula of words) and matter (the action of anointing with oil, the blessing hand of the priest absolving the penitent in confession, the tendering of the consecrated host of bread)—the three sacraments Father Hopkins administered to the dying Felix Randal.
Also in line 10, however, the two uses of the auxiliary verb “had” imply that Hopkins believed that he failed to comfort Felix Randal as much as he wished: Hopkins bestowed the sacraments, but he did not possess the right “bedside