I read in a textbook that Gerard Manley Hopkins entered a Jesuit Novitiate, vowed to never write poetry again, and burnt all the poems he had written in his life. Failing to regard this trivia with imagination, I moved on without letting these blandly stated facts move me. Weeks later, I returned to the biography, pulled out a calculator, and figured out Hopkins was my age—twenty-three—when he sacrificed his poems to the flames. Emotion flooded.
I suddenly saw my hopes and fears hovering near the fire with Hopkins. I felt the determined sorrow of watching words he’d crafted curl to ashes. His father was a poet. Hopkins had studied poetry at Oxford (under Matthew Arnold!). Gerard was on track to make words his life’s work, but as he progressed in his studies, it was theology that captured his heart.
In 1866, he made his life altering religious decision. His Anglican parents turned their words against their son; Hopkins later remarked that their letters were too painful to read twice. Maybe it was the weight of being a disappointment that urged the burning of his poems. Hopkins felt writing was too self-satisfying and individualistic to have a home in his new religious life. It is hard to be individualistic when questioning your identity.
His church superiors urged him to create again. New forms and bold poetic choices emerged. But when he submitted his work to a religious journal, they responded: 'we dare not print that.' Sarah Geil
Whatever crisis caused Hopkins to make the vow, he kept it and stopped writing for seven years. But poetry seemed to linger in his life. Ironically, the same faith that moved Hopkins to decry his craft encouraged him to resume it. His church superiors urged him to create again. New forms and bold poetic choices emerged. But when he submitted his work to a religious journal, they responded: “we dare not print that.”
Faith is complicated. The act of living it out in a fallen world is fraught with contradiction, and Hopkins imbued his masterpiece with this contradiction. “God’s Grandeur” is a poem at times deceptively simple and at others gently hiding a breathtaking complexity.
Hopkins seemed to realize that it is easy to glance over the ways in which the world is charged. I can read the first sentence of this remarkable poem and fail to slow down to consider the meaning of the words. I take it in; internally nod to myself, “I know that,” and move on: what’s next? It’s too easy to write off “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” as straightforward, in the same way that it’s too easy to skip over a sentence about a poet burning his work. But through the next thirteen lines, Hopkins draws me into the vivid certainty expressed in that first line.
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.
Even the form Hopkins employs for this poem breaks past my defense of complacency. Sonnets are traditionally about romantic love. In “God’s Grandeur,” God courts earth. This is a human poem, in a human form, about the most divine love. Like the prophets of old, Hopkins uses the speaker of this poem to expose and mourn the human inadequacies in the relationship.
Since it’s about the two sides of a relationship, the poem naturally splits into two parts. The first eight lines (the octave) are decidedly different from the last six (the sestet). The diction in the octave is laden with darkness. With words like “trod,” “oozing” and “crushed,” the negative tone creates a gloomy cacophony. At the same time, there’s an industrial vibe in the first part; “charged,” “reck,” and “oil” contribute to the unexpected description of a world full of God’s grandeur. An electric urgency hums in the first eight lines, but thanks to Hopkins’s brilliant manipulation of sound and rhythm, even the urgency becomes monotonous.
We need the diction of darkness to help us mourn mankind’s inability to see. Sarah Geil
Then, there’s a word: “and.” The sonnet tradition demands that something in the last few lines must change the meaning and purpose of the other lines. A single word or phrase usually alerts the reader to this rhetorical, emotional volta. Words such as “but” or “however” are often used to indicate the turn. Not so with Hopkins. He uses the word “and.” It’s a word he uses three other times to begin lines of his poem. By using “And,” for the turn, Hopkins plays again with my habit to keep reading, to keep missing the beauty, to keep incessantly ignoring the glorious and at times terrible grandeur. He catches my attention with the dramatic phrase “for all this.” It wakes me up again. The tone of hope in the sestet shines all the brighter having emerged from the diction of darkness. With this third “And,” the focus shifts from the repetition of man’s unwavering disrespect to God’s steadfast splendor.
Hopkins knew, when choosing the sonnet style, he would only have a certain number of syllables to work with. There are only fourteen lines available; every word counts. He made his words count. An expert ambiguity to his diction throughout the entire poem helps create cohesion between the two parts. Even in the first line I once wrote off as simple, the interpretations of the word “charged” add to the beauty. I put my groceries on the conveyer belt and a tired, worn employee pushes the buttons so I can be properly charged. I pay, smearing the world with trade so that the food can recharge me. The world is charged, but nature is never spent. But that’s not all this word can mean. The world is buzzing, charged. The tiny image of the battery on my phone empties day after day so I charge it. Electrically speaking, the world grows increasingly dependent on remaining charged.
Similarly to “charged,” the word “bent,” in line thirteen is expertly indefinite in definitions. “Bent” hangs at a pivotal point in the poem. Looking at just the penultimate line, “bent” is the object over which the Holy Ghost presides. As a noun, “bent” historically meant grass or reed according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It works; the Holy Ghost presides over the grassy earth and the line is complete. However, this is one of Hopkins’s expert uses of his irregular enjambment. In the context of the final line, “bent” is not a noun but an adjective describing the entire World. The single word, defined many different ways, captures nearly every thought expressed in the first dark eight lines. The world is bent, curved, crooked, constrained into a bow, and set on its own course. Bent brings to mind the image of a weapon, pointed at the humans who are so determined to trod along their path of unseeing destruction. Hopkins wastes no words in showing that God’s interactions with the world are more intricate than their surface simplicity might convey, the surface simplicity that we too often seek.
With as much careful complexity as he required of the words, Hopkins was also willing to repeat words such as “have trod, have trod, have trod.” When I write, I often repeat words only because I’m lazy. Hopkins didn’t run out of vocabulary. The sudden shift to regular iambic pentameter (the common rhythm of English poetry, think Shakespeare) makes these repeated words stand out and sound like foot prints. But the actual words matter too; Hopkins recognized our temptation to distance ourselves from the trodders.
For most of the poem, the speaker remains distant, as if he is not part of the generation that trods. But the last line’s bizarre exclamation “Ah!” draws the distant speaker into the intensity.
The exclamation, however, is not the last word of the poem. “Bright wings” are as ambiguous an image as the diction. Wings can be either gentle, like those of a dove, or magnificent and deadly like those of an eagle. Because the wings in this context are thought to belong to the Holy Ghost, the image is that much more powerful. Rather than leaving the reader with the ability to write God’s grandeur off as simple, the wings image invites a final marvel at the complexity with which the world is charged.
Though Hopkins wrote “God’s Grandeur” in 1877, it was not published until after he died in 1918. Victorian on the cusp of modern, Hopkins captured in his poems the dark fear of change that is felt all too similarly today. Here on the edge of a generational swing similar to the shift between what was the Victorian age and the modern era, we continue to need this poem. We need the diction of darkness to help us mourn mankind’s inability to see. We need to recognize our sightless role in humanity and grieve because we too are shod; we trod upon the earth unable to fully appreciate the grandeur with which the world is charged. Until the world is no longer bent, we dwell in the time for which this poem was written and intended.
God’s grandeur does not fit into a box. Sarah Geil
“And for all this” there is a turn. Just like a bird’s wings, the complex contradictions of “God’s Grandeur” work because we, too, are a complex contradiction. I was first taught to recognize a sonnet by its box-like shape. God’s grandeur does not fit into a box. We are fully alive in both parts of the poem. The brokenness and beauty swirl, but along the way, we see a bird flap its wings by the side of the road. We help a little girl learn how to tie her shoes. We slowly pour olive oil into a hot pan to make dinner. Or we analyze an old poem and we are given glimpses of the persistent grandeur that will one day be made complete.