Gerard Manley Hopkin's "God's Grandeur"

Teresa Gibson

Gerard Manley Hopkin's sonnet "God's Grandeur" is typical of many of the poet's  works in its treatment of God and Nature.  It is a Petrarchan sonnet rhyming abbaabba cdcdcd. The octave exclaims on the permeation of the world with God's creative energy  and bewails mankind's lack of awareness of God's power and the corruption of the world  The sextet reassures us that despite man's insensitive treatment of the world, Nature can  never be defeated because of the very real and immediate presence of God. 

The first four lines express the poet's excitement in realizing the world is filled with God's power and question man's  general lack of awareness.  The word "charged" in  line one suggests electricity; its association and sound suggest the world crackles with energy.The second line furthers this effect by comparing his energy to "the shining of shook foil," its reflection, light and sound.  He suggests that God's "grandeur" is too obvious to be missed  "It will flame out. . . . "There is an implied comparison to lightning on which Hopkins  comments in his Letters to Robert Bridges:                                                                         

            'I mean foil in the sense of leaf or tinsel ***Shaken goldfoil gives                            off  broad glares  like sheet lightning and also, and this is true of  nothing  else,           owing to its zigzag dints and  creasings and network of small many                           cornered facets, a sort of fork lightning too.' (169)

Perhaps he is also suggesting man's perception of God's glory:  we often become jaded  toward what we see but from time to time the clouds over our perception dissolve and we  become deeply conscious of the meaning of Nature which does seem to "flame out."  At  moments like these we wonder how we would ever become blase; nevertheless, this  awareness or religious experience slips away and we are left as we were.  Still this reality  is there;  it is steadily underlying all of existence.  Line three suggests the less obvious  but steadily sustaining nature of God.  Now Hopkins could be suggesting another way of  perceiving God's power:  a slow accumulation of  consciousness like the collection of  drops of oil as they are pressed from olives or seeds.  Despite the overwhelming evidence of God's authority, however perceived, men in general do not recognize it.  The question is asked, "Why do men then now not  reck his rod?"  The word "reck" is a short term for  recognize; the "rod" is a scepter, a symbol of authority. The words "then now "suggest  the ongoing nature of man's lack of  awareness: men of the past, "then," and men of the  present, "now," do not "reck" or recognize God's authority--his "rod."  

       Lines five through eight comment on man's insensitivity to Nature, his unnatural state, and his pollution of the earth. Through the repetition of "have trod," line five  suggests the accumulated assault of man's history on the natural world. "Generations"  works well because of its Biblical associations andits suggestion of man en-masse rather  than man the individual.  The internal rhyme of "seared," "bleared",and "smeared"  emphasize society's pollution of the world through work--"trade" and "toil." "Trade"  suggests commerce, materialism, the money-conscious nature of man's work. " Toil"  suggests the dreariness, lack of love anjoy inherent in most of man's work.  "Smudge  particularly captures the accumulated effects of man's efforts--his all too apparent  defilement of beauty.  Even the natural smell of Nature has been replaced by man's smell.  Partly because of the lack of vegetation--"the soil is bare now. . . ."  Hopkins anticipates the ecology movement in his criticism of man's destruction of the wilderness and pollution of the environment.  Destruction and pollution are products of man's inability to respond to Nature. Man cannot respond because he is no longer natural, having been  corrupted by society--his feet cannot feel either bare soil or thriving vegetation since he  walks on shoe leather, "being shod." 

The sestet expresses assurance that Nature is never destroyed despite the pollution and destruction of lines five through eight because of the overwhelming presence and  nurture of God.  The ninth line states the major premise:  "nature is never spent" despite  "all this" referring back to lines five through eight.  In line ten the phrase "dearest  freshness deep down things" apparently refers to inscape  Hopkins' term for "individually  distinctive beauty or ...essence."  (Gardner and McKenzie, p.xx) Inscape reemerges given  the opportunity as predictably as the sun rises after it sets. Though the situation may seem  irrevocably dark, "the last lights off the black West went," renewal I  is imminent --  "morning at the brown brink eastward springs."  A host of associations works in lines eleven and twelve:  Christ also is a son/sun(the son of God and the basis of our  existence); he died for our sins but rose again.  Further association may be made with the  renewal of the seasons.  "Brown brink suggests the potential fertility of the soil--  the  brown earth at the "brink" of spring ready to "Spring"into full fertility.  The basis of this  wonderfully fertile energy or inscape is God herself who "broods" "over the bent  world"(bent through man's corruption) like a bird over its nest.  The image of God "the  Holy Ghost" as a bird is derived from the use of the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit  at the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in Luke:3;22.  The maternal nurturing quality  of God is suggested by "broods" and "warm breast."  These lines further allude to Milton's Paradise Lost., 19-22 which speak of the Holy Ghost as sitting "with  mighty wings out spread/Dovelike...brooding on the vast Abyss" which it "madst  pregnant."  In the last line Hopkins leaps from the maternal to the awe-inspiring quality  of  God  in the final words, "ah! bright wings."                           

This poem is typical of Hopkins work not only in its subject matter but also in its  style.  Compression is evident through out the poem especially in the final lines as I have  demonstrated.  Not only does Hopkins use few words, he also uses short words, generally  Anglo-Saxon.  Hopkins' characteristic sprung rhythm is also evident in this work.  This  rhythm counts "stresses instead of syllables."  (Ellman and O'Clair, Norton Anthology of  Modern Poetry)  Sprung rhythm is "so called because of the syncopated 'spring' --the  occasional 'abrupt' juxtaposing of stressed syllables as in ordinary speech."  (Gardner and  McKenzie,xxxx) Sprung rhythm "provides greater flexibility in the verse by allowing any  one kind of foot to follow any other kind."  (Anderson, Buckler, Veeden). Sprung rhythm  is particularly appropriate for the content of this poem as syncopation suggests the  creativity and energy of God. When the poem speaks of man's work it goes into plodding  iambics, x  /  x  / x  / "have trod, have trod, have trod."  Hopkins' 'love of alliteration  is also much apparent:  ex. seared, smeared, smudge, smell, soil; dearest, deep down.  Because, bent, broods, brown, brink, bright. Hopkins loved natural, individual, original  Beauty--"the dearest freshness deep down things."  To him Nature was alive with God's presence.  Many of his poems including "The Windhover", "Pied Beauty,"  "Hurrahing in Harvest," "Inversnaid," "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," etc. express this  belief and love.