God’s Grandeur

God’s Grandeur

God’s Grandeur
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

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.

I stumbled on this poem last night and I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day. A collection of Hopkins’s poems is on my nightstand, so I looked it up again as soon as I got into bed. I read it again just now, then forced it on Jamie (a professed poetry hater, unless that poem is about her, by me). She said, when I finished, “What–in–the–world was all that about?”

After I stopped laughing she said, “Give it to me again. I’m ready now.” I read it again, noticing some of its nuances for the first time, then she said, “So God made this beautiful world, and man’s made a mess of things, right? But the Holy Spirit is still present, and God’s beauty is stronger than the mess. Is that it?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said, wondering how Hopkins would feel about his verse being summed up that way. “But a poem isn’t just a puzzle to be figured out. It’s also about how it affects you.” I shrugged. “Then again, you’re someone who likes things explained. So yeah. I suppose that’s what it’s about.” For me, it’s about the way he said it, about the beauty of a lovely thought expressed with love. Jamie’s not crazy about questions. She wants the comfort of answers, and I like the adventure of mystery. But spouses, like good poems, aren’t easy to sum up in a sentence or two; I like answers and comfort too, and she’s one of the most adventurous, trusting people I know. She’s a poem written in a language I’m only beginning to learn.

I thought, “A poem this good deserves a third read-aloud.” So I read it to her one more time, loving it even more than I did before. Her silence was the silence of a soul inspired, the silence of someone whose husband had just read her a grand poem about God’s grandeur, a silence of—sleep? Yes, sleep. She was long gone by the end of the third reading. Not everyone is a lover of hundred-year-old poetry, and neither the poem nor my wife are any less wonderful because of it. I love that the last thing she heard as she drifted off was about the bright wings of God’s Holy Spirit brooding over us; whether you’re a poet or not, that’s good news.

Here it is again. (And you have to read it aloud.)

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.

I’m not familiar with Stanley Kunitz, but this video of him reading this, his favorite poem, brought tears to my eyes. His description of stumbling onto the poem is worthy of its own Rabbit Room post. Here’s a snippet of what he says:

“Back in 1926, I was roaming through the stacks of the Widener Library at Harvard. When I was walking through the section on English poetry of the nineteenth century, I just at random lifted my arm and picked a book off the shelf. It was attributed to an author I was not familiar with—Gerard Manley Hopkins. The page that I turned to and began to read was a page devoted to a poem called ‘God’s Grandeur.’

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It really shook me, because it was unlike anything else I had ever read before. Suddenly that whole book became alive to me. It was filled with such a lyric passion; it was so fierce and eloquent, wounded and yet radiant, that I knew that it was speaking directly to me and giving me a hint of the kind of poetry that I would be dedicated to for the rest of my life.”

So how does this poem hit you? Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a poem?