I like to start my days with a bit of beauty, so every morning, I spend a moment reading and memorizing some poetry. Right now, I am working on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ classic Grandeur of God.
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 oilCrushed. 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 soilIs 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 wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —Because the Holy Ghost over the bentWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The poem is divided into two stanzas. Stanza 1 has a rhyme pattern of ABBA ABBA, and Stanza 2 has a rhyme pattern of ABABAB.
Stanza 1 presents us with a conflict and Stanza 2 with a resolution.
In Stanza 1, lines 1 – 3, Hopkins begins his poem referring to radiance of God’s creation: God’s grandeur that “flames out” and “gathers to a greatness.” But in line 4, beginning with the word “Crushed,” he introduces the conflict: “Why do men then now not reck his rod?”
The three sets of alliteration, one of after the other, (men-then, now-not, reck-rod), give a sense of acceleration that emphasizes the discordance that is being introduced. Despite the grandeur of God, men do not “reck” (archaic word for “heed”) His governing rod. Instead, they carelessly exploit creation, and they trod and trod and trod in their pursuit of gain, mindless of the beauty of the world around them.
As a result, the world has been “seared with trade” and “smeared with toil.” Nature has been polluted with “man’s smudge” and “man’s smell”. There has been a fundamental divorce between man and nature, and the tables have been turned: man, who once walked barefoot upon the earth, has bared the earth and no longer feels it – he has separated and insulated himself from it with his industry.
After introducing the conflict, Hopkins offers hope in the second stanza – hope that is found in nature itself because it is “never spent”, despite man’s heedlessness. He refers to the “dearest freshness deep down things”, the unique beauty that can be found in every single thing created by God. (This unique beauty of every individual reality is a recurring theme of Hopkins’ poetry.)
Even when things seem to be irreparably marred, even after “the last lights off the black West went,” there is always hope; morning is always on the other side of the blackness of night. There is always this hope because God the Holy Spirit remains present in His creation.
To describe the Holy Spirit (whom he refers to with the old title of “Holy Ghost”), Hopkins evokes a bird-like image, perhaps of the dove so often used as a symbol of the Paraclete. Just as a mother bird covers her young with her wings (i.e. “broods”), so tenderly does the Holy Spirit care for His creation.
Hopkins ends his poem as he started with a reference to God’s luminous beauty. At the beginning of the poem he referred to God’s beauty as it is manifested in His creation. However, at the end of the poem, he makes a symbolic reference to the beauty of God Himself with his ecstatic recognition of the “bright wings” of the Holy Spirit.
In one way are another, we all have to wake up to face a world that is “seared with trade” and “smeared with toil,” but Hopkins offers us a beautiful insight and a wonderful reminder that not all is lost. No matter how dull or drudging our daily life may seem, and no matter how weary and gray our daily environment may be, there is always “the dearest freshness deep down” in everything around us. God’s beauty still charges the world.
All we have to do is take a moment to linger in God’s grandeur for the never-depleted freshness of His creation to fill and charge our own lives.