One of the reasons that Hopkins’ poem kept my attention is the ambiguity of the opening line. What, exactly, did Hopkins mean when he chose the word “fell” to contrast the experiences of dark and day?
When I think of the word “fell” I immediately think of fell-walking. This is because walking has been one of my great pastimes, especially upland walking, or fell walking. The picture on my homepage is of light and dark on Coniston Fell. I’ve never walked this particular fell but the picture seemed to capture something of the joy of finding light in unexpected places. Sometimes, the fells are bleak places where the landscape expands with an oppressive monotony. A sudden ray of sunlight piercing through the gloom can completely transform the view – and, indeed, our experience of it.
Of course, the word “fell” also means terrible or evil or deadly. And it’s not hard to see why Hopkins might have chosen such a word to describe the long dark watches of the night, when the prospect of sleep seems not only impossible but a very real source of fear. I often dread going to bed because I dread not sleeping. The very part of the day when we yearn for rest can become a source of unbridled terror. The dark becomes “fell” in that sense.
But there is another meaning to the word “fell”. In Old English, it could refer to an animal hide, or skin. If Hopkins had this in his mind, he may have been suggesting that the darkness had become for him something real, something tangible, a kind of constraint – in the same sense that our own skin serves as a boundary for our organs. Was Hopkins suggesting that the dark had become so much a part of his physical self that it was like his skin, his pelt, defining him? Hopkins was, of course, a Jesuit. And part of the Jesuit disciplines was to define experience with reference to each of the senses. A tangible “fell of dark” would make sense.
I suppose that one of the benefits of poetry is that it uses imagery which encourages us to search for meaning. I’m instinctively drawn to the idea that the “fell of dark” is something almost visceral, an almost tangible aspect of our self, something really, if not literally, felt.