Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/16/2011

. . .cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed

The Windhover

The Windhover

That no one can know how it feels to be someone else is a commonplace unnerving enough to send me searching for the solitude desert cave—I have several favorites—the Mojave, remote canyons near Abiquiu, NM, the Jordan Valley on the Palestinian side of the river. When I need to sit with the reality that I’m alone—totally, completely, irrevocably alone—on this planet, in spite of sharing it with six billion other human beings, I remember one of those places.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ (1844–1889) in one of his Terrible Sonnets says  one’s mind—mind, singular—“has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed ,” frightful, sheer cliffs that no one other than one’s self can fathom. One who has never experienced the loneliness of hanging on the cliffs of her mind will hold the experience “cheap,” and will fail to understand that especially in death we are alone.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall 
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, 
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep [1].

I was climbing around the frightful, sheer, no-one-else-fathomed cliffs of my mind earlier today thinking about a friend who died a year ago. She asked that I read a Hopkins poem, “The Windhover,” at her memorial. Thinking about Anne led me to read Hopkins poetry and Robert Greenberg’s article on Hopkins I found last year to prepare for reading “The Windhover.” Hopkins’ poetry is not instantly transparent.

Hopkins was acutely aware, Greenberg says, that “when I compare myself, my being-myself, with anything else whatever, all things alike, all in the same degree, rebuff me with blank unlikeness” [2]. This unlikeness means one’s  own existence bears no resemblance to anyone else’s, and we are each “incommunicable by any means to another man (as when I was a child I used to ask myself, What must it be to be someone else)” [3]. Hopkins asserts that even God cannot “taste this taste of self as I taste it, for it is not to him that the guilt or shame, the fatal consequence, the fate, comes home.” If God is unable to know me, says Hopkins, God is unable to know anyone else, and “God cannot serve as the bridge between Hopkins and other men, ‘the means of communicating what is individual in me to them nor in them to me’” [4].

Anne traversed the incommunicable unlikeness between herself and others farther than almost anyone else I have ever known. She had deep and abiding friendships with many people. I am not alone in having had with her a kind of soul-kindredness in which we communicated at a level that almost made language unnecessary—except, of course, it was our language play that established our friendship in the first place. “All Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.” I grieve the loss of my friend Anne who taught me to love poetry.



The “cliffs of fall/frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” of one’s mind, even in a spiritual-mental bond such as Anne and I shared, are traversable only alone. I spend what seems to others an inordinate amount of time physically alone. I do not know but what the hours I spend in solitude affect my sanity, my emotional health, my ability to communicate—my ability to traverse the incommunicable unlikeness between myself and others. I know I dwell on grief and sadness more than I ultimately would like, probably partly a function of solitude.

Many events in my life make me sad. I must quickly say I know depression, and I am not depressed. I have begun to be able to distinguish among grief, sadness, and depression. Saying that, however, carries some risk because

In contemporary psychotherapeutic discourse, sadness has increasingly come to be identified with depression and as a result is often viewed as part of a pathological condition. Seen from this perspective, sadness becomes a symptom rather than an experience to be probed for its own value [5].

The risk is that friends and family, if I talk about being sad, will rush to the judgement of the theraputic community and assume that I am once again depressed. But I  am taken by the idea that sadness is “an experience to be probed for its own value.” Sadness comes in more than one form, and one must learn to distinguish them before one can probe the experience of sadness.

Ronald Pies describes two roots of unhappiness in Buddhism. Dukha, he says,

comes from the . . . inevitable occasions of unhappiness” that come with human suffering, frailty, disease, loss of loved ones, and of course, death. Then there is tanha, which is translated as “blind demandingness,” that part of our nature “…which leads us to ask of the universe…more than it is ready or even able to give.” Very roughly, we can see the precursors of normal and pathological sadness, respectively, in dukha and tanha [6].

My sadness has moved (is in a process of moving) from “blind demandingness. . . ask[ing] of the universe” more than it is able to give, to an understanding of the “inevitable occasions of unhappiness.”

Perhaps what I see as inevitable occasions of unhappiness is in some way philosophical—except I know next to nothing about existentialism, postmodernism, or any isms. This sadness might also be related to the reigious “dark night of the soul” although I am so unsure of my religious beliefs or practices at this point that I doubt that.

I mention the “dark night” because I stumbled upon an article about the psychological treatment of individuals who are experiencing “the dark night of the soul.” The article asserts that

Healing (especially emotional/spiritual healing) involves putting suffering in a wider context than that offered by psychiatry and medicine in general. They struggle to make sense of these experiences in the light of their beliefs and religious vocation, considering their suffering as a chance for achieving greater spiritual depth [7].

I am not in the “dark night of the soul.” My sadness is related always—and more and more completely—to Hopkins’ “cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” My work is to put my sadness (I did not say suffering) in a “wider context. . .to make sense of these experiences.” My sadness derives from my understanding that I have no “means of communicating what is individual in me to [those I love]” nor they to me. The frightful, sheer cliffs of my experience are, in the end my experience alone.

Sadness comes unbidden (not unwelcome because I know I am not asking more of the universe than it can give) when I realize I have no means of communicating the depth of my love and pain on learning of the suffering of one whom I love dearly.  I do not have “the means of communicating what is individual in me to [her]” even though what is individual in me is love that would gladly bear her suffering. That is my sadness, the Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed cliff of my mind.
[1]Hopkins,  Gerard Manley (1844–89).  “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.” Poems.  1918. (number 41). The entire poem is below.
[2] Hopkins, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “First Principle and Foundation.” The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Christopher Devlin, SJ. London: Oxford University Press, 1959 (123). Quoted in Greenberg, Robert A. “Hopkins’ Portraits and Human Nature.” Papers on Language & Literature 18.2 (1982): 115.
[3] Sermons, 123.
[4] Greenberg, 116.
[5] Burton-Christie, Douglas. “Evagrius on Sadness: Sadness and Christian Spirituality.” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 44.4 (2009), 397.
[6] Pies, Ronald. “The anatomy of Sorrow: a spiritual, phenomenological, and neurological perspective.” Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 3.17 (2008). Quoting: Burtt, E.A. The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. New York: Penguin Books, 1982 (28).
[7] Dura-Vila, G. and S. Deinb. “The Dark Night of the Soul: spiritual distress and its psychiatric implications.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 12.6 (September 2009): 543-559.

NO worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, 
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. 
Comforter, where, where is your comforting? 
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief? 
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing— 
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling- 
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’. 

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall |
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small 
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, 
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all 
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.


  1. I have loved this poem for 40 years, and while Hopkins was a depressive, it applies to anyone who is self aware. How many of us have felt that cliff, that terror, even if we have not succumbed to depression. But we all know someone who has and this helps us understand the horror. It goes beyond the niceties of a diagnosis, to give a sense of the horror that one can feel. Finally, I am sorry for the loss of your friend, who clearly you loved dearly. And I apologise for the banality of these comments.


  2. Sorry to be a bore – but David Hume (I am thinking here of Hopkin’s knowledge of “one’s mind”, said that self knowledge was akin to saying to your shadow “stand still a while so I can have a better look”.

    No more from me, I promise



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