God’s Grandeur

Last post, on the topic of The Name of the Rose, I made a passing reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins, who (I thought) had inspired one of the exchanges of the novel. Hopkins deserves more than a passing reference now and again, and so here is one of his best poems. To be read aloud, ‘slowly, strongly marking the rhythms and fetching out the syllables,’ according to the poet:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

A friend of mine has a rather glib – though accurate – line on Hopkins that his poems can be summarised as saying, see that beautiful natural thing over there… that’s God, that is. I should mention that this friend is a big fan of Hopkins too, despite being a solid atheist. One doesn’t necessarily need to share Hopkins’s beliefs to appreciate the beauty that his poem doesn’t just describe but evokes in fresh, vivid images and crisp, musical sounds; and one still feels the despair of the first stanza and the rebirth of hope in the last without being fully able to appreciate the religious connotations – though even for a non-believer, the connection between the beauty of a sunrise and the unfathomable sense of hope that it inspires can be a source of wonder. As a religious waverer – and enjoyer of the English countryside, I think I can just about enter into sympathy with the idea that manifestations of beauty in nature are manifestations of the grandeur of God, though I lack Hopkins’s confidence that they really truly are. Even Hopkins himself had his moments of religious doubt and despair (if not actual scepticism) , however, as anyone who has read the so-called ‘Sonnets of Desolation’ can attest to.

I’ve never studied Hopkins – just read and enjoyed him. I know there will be GCSE students up and down the country marking the alliteration in the poem’s lines and trying to define its effect, and A-level students swotting up on the Italian sonnet, while some university students will be trying to unravel the mystery of Hopkins’s ‘sprung rhythm’, but his poems, though undoubtedly complex and crafted, are accessible to all, I think. The idea of light ‘shining’ from ‘shook foil’ (shaken foliage) sounds strange at first – but when we visualise it, the image is perfectly appropriate: just watch a tree in the sunlight on a windy day.

It is noticeable, reading God’s Grandeur, how modern sounding is Hopkins’s attitude to the environment. Like many conservationists of the 20th Century, he is keenly aware of the damage that mankind can do to the countryside, and even of the way that modern life can alienate us from nature and thus, from Hopkins’s point of view, from God. The poem is an ancestor of Larkin’s poetry, I think, and Hopkins’s distaste for Victorian development a precursor of that great poet-reactionary’s rejection of modern Britain. Of course, unlike Larkin, Hopkins ends with a note of hope, a sense that man can never truly vanquish the beauty in (and above) the world.



Filed under Literature, Poetry

4 responses to “God’s Grandeur

  1. your analysis is spot-on. i’m a hopkins fan myself. my favorite poems of his are probably this one, “pied beauty,” “spring and fall,” “the windhover,” and “the wreck of the deutschland,” even though the latter’s a major undertaking to get through. thanks also for pointing out his foreshadowing of larkin; and i appreciate your insight into hopkins’ presaging of today’s environmental movement. although i share your doubts as to god’s existence, the forces of nature are the most god-like thing i can think of. hell, at least they’re real in the sense of being perceptible through all five senses. kudos.

  2. You’ve named some of my other favourite Hopkins poems there,Stew. As a casual birdwatcher, The Windhover has a great appeal for me, and I would throw in ‘As kingfishers catch flame’, too. Mind, I didn’t quite say that I doubted the existence of God, only that I couldn’t quite share Hopkins’s confidence that nature manifests God’s glory. Your last statement marks you out as an empiricist and your tone as an atheist, so perhaps the question is gobbledygook to you, but is God in or outside nature, or above it? Is there a principle of Goodness that transcends the actual and is it thus able to manifest itself in the actual? If not, then what is beauty?

  3. I share all of the above enthusiasm for Hopkins’ poems, though I don’t read them for God-thought; rather for the sheer beauty of the imagery and verse. It doesn’t come across to me that he believes he has measured the immeasurable, only that he is seeking to do so, and not ever coming to the end of the search. The beauty of nature is sung in his poetry but the nature of Beauty he addressed in his brief prose work entitled “On The Origin Of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue,” which I find an interesting read.

  4. Nicely put. Thanks for the recommended essay – I’ve had a sneak peak at it, and – lo and behold – it seems to be Hopkins tackling the very question that I posed in my reply to Stew. Very interesting indeed. I shall read it at my leisure.

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