By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In our pick of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best poems, we included ‘God’s Grandeur’, a sonnet celebrating ‘the grandeur of God’. Hopkins was one of the greatest religious poets of the entire nineteenth century, and this poem shows how he attained that reputation. Below is the poem, along with an analysis of some of its themes and linguistic features.
Summary and Analysis
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?
In summary, Hopkins writes that the grandeur and greatness of God can be found in everything – a view that is very much associated with the Romantic poets and their pantheistic view that there is divinity in every rock, plant, tree, lake, or flower.
But unlike the Romantics, Hopkins uses the sort of imagery we wouldn’t necessarily expect to encounter when reading a poem praising God’s presence in nature: the grandeur of God ‘will flame out’ or flare out, in sudden bursts of light and energy, ‘like shining from shook foil’ – i.e. the way that thin sheet-metal shines when it catches the light (though ‘foil’ also glints with its secondary meaning, namely a thin metal sword used in fencing).
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.
Given that God’s grandeur ‘gathers to a greatness’, like the ooze of crushed olives used to make oil, why do so many people not heed, or listen to, God?
Work seems to have replaced worship: generations of men have worked (‘trod’, repeated three times to suggest the monotony of the daily grind), and this act of toiling and tilling the land seems almost to have erased the very presence of God’s greatness in the land. We’ve lost our earthy connection with nature, too: we no longer feel the soil between our feet, since we wear shoes!
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
The poem is a sonnet, and as is the way with Petrarchan or Italian sonnets (of which ‘God’s Grandeur’ is one), at this point there is a volta or ‘turn’ – that is, a change in the argument being put forward. This is often signalled by the word ‘But’ or ‘Yet’ at the head of the ninth line; here we have the phrase, ‘And for all this’. Despite man’s best efforts to lose touch with divine nature, nature keeps on giving: things are still fresh and alive, if you dig deep enough.
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.
Tomorrow, the poem concludes, is a new day: although the light fades in the west every night, morning comes, because the Holy Ghost (related to God and Jesus Christ in the Holy Trinity, of course) broods over the world (A. E. Housman offers a somewhat less sanguine view of the sunset). So much for what the poem is saying.
But, as always with Gerard Manley Hopkins, the joy is in how he chooses to say it. Take that image of the grandeur of God – an abstract idea, you would have thought – being likened to something as vivid and visual as light shining from ‘shook foil’ (not shaken foil, you’ll note: the solecism is important in conveying the quick immediacy of the light’s movement).
Or the sheer braveness (or bravado?) of having a line as dully repetitive as ‘Generations have trod, have trod, have trod’ (compare Shakespeare’s line from King Lear, ‘Never, never, never, never, never’).
Throughout the poem, Hopkins does things which a poet less adept or possessed with genius (and the word seems justified when discussing such a poet as Hopkins) would render in a crass or clumsy way. Here, though, the poem succeeds. It is one of the Victorian era’s greatest religious poems – though, as with many of Hopkins’s poems, it only first saw publication in 1918, nearly thirty years after his death.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.