Classwork: My Smudge

In late August I began attending classes at the University of Dallas in pursuit of my M.A. in English. I’m enrolled in two classes: one studying the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins particularly in a philosophical and theological context, and one studying The Dunciad of Alexander Pope as an introduction to literary study at the graduate level. I present here a polished draft of my first work on Hopkins. Instead of explicating one of his earlier (and less interesting) poems, I begged leave to write on “God’s Grandeur”. As it turns out, there is far more to be said about this poem than one such as myself can express in twenty-five hundred words, but I’m not wholly dissatisfied with where the essay stands currently.

For any reader’s convenience, I post the poem here in its entirety:

“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.

God of Grandeur, Rod, and Wing: A Reading of Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur”

The central movement of Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” begins from a meditation on the grandeur of God  throughout the world (lines 1-4) which spurs the question of mankind’s disregard of it; man’s depravity (lines 5-8) presents a problem that in turn elicits a sort of theodicy of God’s grandeur from the speaker (lines 9-14). The speaker’s answer is that despite man’s harm of the world, nature is “never spent” (9); the “freshness” (10) of nature is upheld, for Hopkins, by the mediative hovering-over of the Holy Ghost. The central conflict or issue—“Why do men then now not reck his rod?” (5)—is pressed upon the speaker in response to the opening exploration of the suffusion of nature with God’s grandeur: “The world is charged with the Grandeur of God” (1). Despite its digression into mankind’s disobedience, the poem foremost seeks to illuminate God-as-Trinity manifest in the world, demanding praise and obedience from man.

The language in the first four lines conveys grandeur in suspense; it is not static—the language is energetic and vital—but “charged” (1) implies readiness for a thing yet unrealized: it “will flame out” (2; emphasis mine) in the future.[1] This grandeur is in the process of “gather[ing] to a greatness” (3).  The “shining from shook foil” (2) Hopkins himself glosses in a letter as of “[s]haken goldfoil” which “gives off broad glares like sheet lightning” (qtd. in Hopkins 347); this image pictures a radiance that belies the size of the foil. The next image invokes the oil from a pressed olive that moves toward itself and collects together (lines 3-4). The poet here develops the image of God’s grandeur as it charges the world, but it has a deeper Christological sense discussed below. These similes relate God’s grandeur to particular, familiar things and in so doing concretely instantiate that grandeur which otherwise could be received abstractly and lifelessly by the audience. Alliteration ties together each set of thing and thing expressed: “grandeur” and “God”; “flaming” and “foil”; “shining” and “shook”; “ooze” and “oil” (lines 1-3). This not only binds these words together for the hearer, but it hints at a closer union of the things (foil, olive) with the things that flash forth (shining, oil) just as God becomes identified with his expressions of grandeur in the world by the poem’s close.

The speaker’s immediate response to the grandeur of God is to ask then why men fail to “reck his rod” (5). At the back of this response is the tacit assumption that God’s expression of himself in the world places a moral demand on mankind for a right response, a response which the speaker asserts mankind does not make. This moral overtone resounds through the rest of the octave. The language here is interesting: to reck is “to heed” and to respond with “desire, or favour” towards a thing (“reck”). What mankind fails to heed is God’s rod, made parallel to God, in line one, by the end-rhyme scheme. That it should be his rod is perhaps not immediately clear. The word is deeply rooted in the Bible, and the manifold semantic echoes of the word would certainly have been familiar to Hopkins. A rod in Scripture can be one of discipline[2], and of guidance[3]; but significantly for this poem, the word is closely bound up with Christ: the Messiah is referred to as the “rod out of the stem of Jesse” (King James Version, Is. 11.1). The association of the rod with Christ is tightened by what the OED calls a “formal and semantic overlap” with the archaic rood, the Cross (“rod”). Brought to bear, this implies that (part of) the recklessness of man is that he does not see Christ crucified in the grandeur of God revealed in the world. This identification of Christ with the grandeur of God may elucidate the image of God’s grandeur gathering “like the ooze of oil / Crushed”: echoing the language of key messianic passages (e.g. Is. 53.10 in the English Standard Version: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him”[4]), the olive crushed for oil reflects the suffering undertaken by Christ so that grace might abound[5]. In this light, the grandeur of God involves the Father and the Son in these opening lines; as the poem unfolds in the sestet, it involves the Spirit as well.

The fourth line has presented man’s failing, and the second quatrain (lines 5-8) elaborates and explains it, giving both cause and effect of mankind’s recklessness. The upshot of this passage is that mankind’s failure is both a willful blinding of self to the world and a veiling of the world by violent suppression. For “generations” men “have trod, have trod, have trod”, the stomping repetition of which hammers home the willful crushing (5). The grandeur of the world is physically underfoot, unheeded by man. There is perhaps another remote echo back to the “rod” of line four which, in a number of British dialects, is road (“rod”): man is blind to the thing he walks upon, his very foundation.

This self-blindness affects the world: it becomes “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” (6). Seared hints at a cauterization of sorts which the heedless treading of man has effected. Throughout this passage are glances to Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us” in which through “getting and spending” we “lay waste our power” to “see in Nature what is ours” (lines 2, 3); Hopkins responds to this in the sestet when he asserts in like language that, in spite of all that man has done, the world will never be exhausted of God’s grandeur: “nature is never spent” (9; emphasis mine). But for Hopkins, the blindness of man clearly harms the world: nature is marred and masked with “man’s smudge” and “smell”, and the “soil / Is bare” (7-8). There is an environmental concern here which Hopkins held in common with the Romantics in the face of the devastation of the Industrial Revolution, and he deals with the theme elsewhere in his poetry[6]; yet there is a more central moral and epistemological concern, for though the soil is bare, man cannot even feel that for “being shod” (8). We have smothered the world and cut ourselves off from it.

This assessment both of God revealed in the world and of mankind’s condition mirrors the meditation on God’s wrath from the first chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul there speaks of God’s “eternal power and Godhead” which are “clearly seen” in creation (KJV, Rom. 1.20). Paul continues that man, despite knowing God through creation, failed to honor him and so grew “vain in their imagination”, “their foolish heart was darkened”, and they “became fools” (Rom. 1.21-22). The world, as an active participant in manifesting God to man, likewise suffers because men “suppress” that truth (ESV, 1.18): Paul later says that the world “groaneth and travaileth in pain” (KJV, 8.22), eagerly awaiting its release from the “bondage of corruption” (8.21) brought on by mankind’s sin.  In masking nature with our “smudge” and “smell”, we have, as Paul says, “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (Rom. 1.23). These Pauline themes echo throughout “God’s Grandeur”, and, if nothing else, further emphasize man’s failure to see God’s grandeur in the world and characterize it as an explicitly moral issue; these parallels with Paul squarely place both God’s revelation and man’s heedlessness, as Hopkins characterizes them, into a traditional Christian context, identifying that grandeur with an explicit self-revelation of God, and identifying the failure of men to perceive it with the original sinfulness of man. In Hopkins’s own vocabulary, mankind in Paul’s understanding and in “God’s Grandeur” is guilty of a refusal to instress God as he reveals himself in the world.

While the octave closes with something of a grim assessment of man and his world, the speaker’s response is a sestet of theodicy. But the theodicy here for Hopkins has little in common with, for example, Alexander Pope’s reasoned vindication of God’s ways in The Essay on Man, and instead shares in the spontaneous praise of the Psalmist. Instead of defensiveness, the ninth line asserts his response with “And” rather than a conjunction to contrast or to refute: “And for all this, nature is never spent” (9). Despite man’s self-crippling and irreverent treading, nature is not a currency we could ever rid ourselves of, nor is its force to be exhausted. The poet celebrates a vital energy—the “dearest freshness deep down things” (10)—that remains unharmed by man. That it is “deep down” hearkens back to the notion of God’s grandeur-in-suspense early in the poem: the world yet remains “charged” with it. The alliterative d, the sharply monosyllabic “deep down things”, and the syntactic compression—eliding the preposition relating “down” to “things”—infuses the whole line with a quickness and an excitement. The effect is to sweep the reader along with the speaker’s enthusiasm away from man’s failure back to the speaker’s primary interest: the grandeur of God.

Following a semi-colon, the subsequent image is likewise introduced by the conjunction and, making lines eleven and twelve parallel to the celebration in lines nine and ten: both sections serve as the poet’s answer to the states of man and the world at the end of the octave. The image the poet here presents is of sunset and sunrise compressed into a moment: night masks the world in blackness, but “morning…springs” (12) at the horizon. The “black West” (11) is perpetually pushed back by the “brown brink eastward” (12) in the natural cycle of day and night as light chases darkness around the planet. The horizon is yet brown in this image for the sun has only begun to “flame out” (2); it is the “dearest freshness” which remains “deep down things” (10). The “brink” (12) here denotes more literally the edge of the ocean over which the sun rises but also carries close associations with the edge of a chasm and the grave (“brink”). It is over such an abyss that the glimmer of morning comes. That glimmer of light draws from the speaker a visceral “Oh” of praise (12). The morning “springs” (12), which word is packed with connotations of life and energy, bearing the echoes of Spring’s green growth and of resurrection from Winter’s sleep. More, if I am right in earlier finding Christ crucified in the rod which men fail to recognize, it is fitting that there would here be a hint of the Easter of Christian thought—Christ raised[7], long associated with the Spring season—in the freshness that comes flashing out of the night.  In this image, with all its Christian associations, the poem attempts to capture and communicate the rod which we ought to reckon with in nature. On one level of meaning, the poem serves an evangelical call to the reader to correct the mistakes of men: to see aright, to reck.

The poem spells out the meaning that underlies the natural event. What man ought to see is not merely the sunset itself but what lives “deep down” within it, invigorating it. The morning which bursts forth forever new against the night is neither self-generated nor a brute fact of nature: as the closing lines make clear, it is precisely “because the Holy Ghost . . . / . . . broods” over the “bent / World” with his “warm breast” and “bright wings” that the warmth and brightness of the sun can spring (13-14). Thus Hopkins ties together the central ideas of the poem: it becomes fully Trinitarian by invoking the Spirit alongside the crucified and risen Christ and the Father, with whose grandeur the poem begins. These closing lines further identify the Godhead with the expressions of himself in the world (though not exhaustively so). That is, the Spirit’s breast and wings are manifest or incarnate in the sun; the sun pictures the freshness that remains within the world; that freshness is the grandeur of God. Though the world is “bent” (13), the Holy Spirit hovers above it, maintaining it and the presence of God within it, as a bird its egg. Because he hovers, it can never be spent, however blindly man tread, and tread, and tread, searing and smothering the good gifts of God.

The poem’s two closing lines are more ponderous than the earlier enthusiastic shock at the world’s freshness with which the sestet opens. The expressive “ah” (14) at the bright wings of the Holy Spirit reveals both a wonder and a relief. It is in this meditation on the Spirit that the poet rests, unharried by the wickedness of mankind. The lyrical moment has passed through the celebration of God in his grandeur expressed in the world and here comes to a calm in the thing expressed: God himself.

*  *  *

[1] This does not imply that the grandeur of God is hidden or invisible: it does not alleviate mankind’s responsibility to apprehend and assent to it in the mind of the poet, for it is precisely this assertion of a world charged with God’s grandeur that underlies and spurs on the subsequent discussion of man’s failure.

[2] E.g. Isaiah 10.5: “…the rod of mine anger” (KJV).

[3] E.g. Psalm 23.4: “…thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”.

[4] The Latin Vulgate has conterere (Vulgata Clementina, Is. 53.10), defined in Cassell’s Latin Dictionary as to “grind” or “pound”, and includes the sense of “to trample under foot” (“contero”).

[5]  The idea here has an analogue in the Christocentric language of Hopkins’s “The Windhover” with its “blue-bleak embers” that “fall, gáll themselves” and “gásh góld-vermíllion” (13-14). “The Windhover” as a whole serves as a concrete example of the way that Hopkins seeks rightly to “reck” God in the world.

[6] See “Binsey Poplars” in particular.

[7] Christ is notably called “the bright and morning star” in the Book of Revelation (KJV, 22.16). Hopkins’s poetic invention is here again, in this image of the sunrise, squarely rooted in biblical language used to speak about the Father and Christ. Consider Psalm 30.5: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning”, and Lamentations 3.22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning”. That newness each morning informs Hopkins’s freshness. Closest of all to Hopkins’s thought here is Psalm 19 in which the Psalmist, after announcing that God is proclaimed throughout the world in his creation, particularly highlights the sun like “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber” that “rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race” (19.5). Just as the grandeur of God stirs Hopkins to address man’s responsibility and failure, the Psalmist, on the heels of this celebration of the sun as a manifestation of the glory of God, turns his song to the law of the Lord and a prayer to be kept from breaking it.

*  *  *

Works cited

Holy Bible, The. English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2007. Print.

Holy Bible, The. Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Holman, 1979. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Major Works. Ed. Catherine Phillips. New York: Oxford, 2009. Print.

—. “God’s Grandeur”. 128.

—. “The Windhover”. 132.

“reck, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 22 September 2015.

“rod, n.1.” OED Online. —.

Simpson, D. P. “Contero.” Cassell’s Latin Dictionary: Latin-English, English-Latin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977. 146. Print.

Vulgata Clementina. 2006. Web. 22. September 2015. <http://vulsearch.sourceforge.net/html/index.html&gt;.

[Edit 9/25/15: I’ve updated this with a few modifications.]

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