This past semester, my English teacher announced that today, we were going to read a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The girl next to me groaned. “Ugh,” she said. “Not Hopkins.”
Now, this girl happens to be a lovely person and a good friend of mine, but in that moment, it was as if the devil himself sat in that chair. I spun around. “Hopkins is the best poet in the English language.”
“That’s subjective,” she said. “He’s boring.”
Um, hell no. The quality of poetry is not, and can never be, subjective. It is not dependent on one’s personal enjoyment of the poem.
“Oh,” I said. “So because he does not personally entertain you, everything he ever wrote must be garbage.”
OK, so that may not have been very Christlike, and since it’s Theology Thursday, I’ll admit that. But in the moment, it was that or “Well, maybe you’re boring.” Which I could tell was what my English teacher wanted to say.
No matter what my friend thinks, Hopkins is still my favorite poet. So for Theology Thursday today, we’re going to read the first poem of his that I came across: “God’s Grandeur.”
This is a gorgeous poem. It rolls across the tongue and gives me goosebumps. I could talk for hours about the meter (“sprung rhythm,” which Hopkins invented) and the structure (a 14-line sonnet, complete with volta at line 9). But since it’s Theology Thursday and not Poetry Friday, I’ll talk mostly about the theology side of things.
Let’s start with the first line.
The word “charged” here is a pun. The world is brimming with the grandeur of God, just as something that is electrically charged crackles with energy. But we, the world, are also “charged” with God’s grandeur, in the sense that His creation is our responsibility. As Christians, we must be good stewards of the beautiful world God has blessed us with.
I love the image of “shining from shook foil.” God’s grandeur is everywhere in creation, catching the light at different times like a sheet of foil.
Then Hopkins questions why we don’t listen to God–“Why do men then now not reck his rod?” Although God has blessed us with His creation, we have squandered it. It “wears man’s smudge and bears man’s smell,” and our feet can’t even feel the ground anymore. In the wake of modern “progress,” we have lost touch with our Creator.
Line 9 brings us a new stanza and the “volta”–the traditional turning point in a sonnet. Here, the tone turns from despair to hope: “Yet for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” These lines refer to Hopkins’ concept of “inscape.”
“Inscape,” a term invented by Hopkins, can be defined as “the innate essence or quality of a thing, endowed by God.” That’s my super-simplified definition; it’s really hard to pin down the exact meaning. The definition given in this post is “the individual or essential quality of a thing; the uniqueness of an observed object, scene, event, etc.” Honestly, “dearest freshness deep down things” is a pretty good definition. I looked for some good sources on inscape for you guys, but I couldn’t find anything on the Internet. Sorry! (I got most of my information from my sister, who recently wrote a paper on Hopkins.)
Anyway, let’s look at the next line. It appears to refer to a sunset, but if you pay attention, “West” is capitalized as a proper noun. Hopkins is commenting on the corruption of Western civilization, which has destroyed creation (see earlier lines)–but “morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs.”
I’m not sure how I’d like to interpret that line. “Eastward” is not capitalized, and Hopkins was Roman Catholic, so I don’t think he is referring to Eastern Orthodoxy. The most satisfactory explanation seems to be that traditionally, the west was associated with the devil while the east was associated with God. To this day, many churches are built facing the east. In this poem, the sunrise coming from the east symbolizes God’s coming to us–
“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
The Holy Spirit is often represented as a dove, and here, Hopkins takes that further, likening the Spirit to a mother bird watching over her eggs. These lines always give me goosebumps–they have a quiet power. Sometimes I whisper them to myself as a reminder that God has left His Spirit with us on Earth, to help us and guide us. Not only does creation reflect God’s grandeur, but the Spirit is also present with us today.
What do you think about “God’s Grandeur”? How do you interpret the poem? Let me know in comments!
Can’t get enough of Theology Thursday? Read all my Theology Thursday posts here.
I know this isn’t technically Poetry Friday–but if you want more poetry posts, read them here!