God’s Grandeur

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.

—G.M. Hopkins

Of the two best, surely the second best of Hopkins, and among the best examples of a sonnet in English. There is something of a dare in that first line. He offers an exhilarating fact and has before him the task of making it appreciated. Hopkins must suggest to us how the world is charged with the grandeur of God in such a way that we can participate in the high emotion of his rapture.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

The first two iambs are followed by something almost like a qualitative anapest (in English we do meter based on stress, and here the stress falls on the first syllable of grandeur; in Greek and Latin the stress is based on quality = the length of the syllable, and you can see how much longer than ‘with’ and ‘the’ is the ‘grand’ of grandeur). He has all the syllables for an iambic pentameter, but by using the word ‘grandeur’ as he does, by cheating our expectations, he charges the line and focuses its rhythm.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

Hopkins understood the possibilities of alliteration. The Fs flare, and the SHs carry the light along like rivulets along the surface of a world made all of foil. He hasn’t mentioned liquid, but has already suggested it. One of the great things about this sonnet is how the flow of thought is controlled (and transformed). You start with exhilaration which by the end of the eighth line must be tempered into something very bleak for the final ‘turn.’ So the flaring grandeur gathers, and in one of the most illogical but nevertheless satisfying descriptions, he makes another parallel simile and with the stretching effect of an enjambment, reaches out to crush.

If you think about, it, oil isn’t crushed. Oil may result from crushing, but the metonymy of effect takes a little thinking when you pause at it. What is singular is that such you don’t have to pause: it is an apt metonymy (if that’s the term I need to describe it), and swift in its effect, which is what he needs here.

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

An unexpected question pauses things. Hopkins is controlling the pace of your realization. There is a rhythm to thought and feeling, and he is guiding you through it (and from one to the other). With the crush comes an instrument of discipline. At this point Hopkins gets so dense (part of the deceleration necessary for what is coming) that you can’t really think your way through the poem, you have to grasp it intuitively and be borne along, which is very easy to do. But the wonder is how much is packed away, how abruptly thought switches because of all the implied connections. With the change from light flashing out, to gathering liquid, to crushing of a solid at last you come to the rod of God.

An instrument of grandeur?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

A brilliant line. Simply repeating the present perfect he achieves the necessary monotony. Well, not by simply repeating the present perfect, but by simply repeating the present perfect as the last three iambs in a line begun with the word ‘generations,’ the accent of which word falls on the penultimate syllable and thereby renders the meter of the first two feet completely ambiguous. The effect is to make the first two feet long and vague and full of antiquity, and the last three feet toil out of it.

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.

So it plods on, a long way from grandeur now and with none of the exhilarating rush. Under the rod, though. That ‘eared’ sound describes a whole odyssey, and it is achieved largely with the distance he puts between the repetitions. Notice in the second line here, how he alternates Ss and Ms for an effect of rubbing things into the ending ‘soil’ even further than the ‘eared’ did.

And the concluding ‘shod’ makes you never want to wear shoes again.

Eight lines and only two rhyming sounds allowed, and all that distance we have traveled. We have further yet to go!

And for all this, nature is never spent;

Here is the turn, and with what suspense! It is quiet and thoughtful because it is leading to one of the greatest things Hopkins ever said. Notice the rhythm: ta-ta-ta-tum, tum-ta-ta-ta-ta-tum, with the last two tums being nothing compared with the first. A quiet observation, but the heart agrees, leaps out to fill the lack of emphasis, is seduced by Hopkins into participation.

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

If one were writing the line, one would be tempted to supply the preposition before things, for the sake of logic. Hopkins has the mastery of logic and can quite omit it in order to get us directly to what he’s saying. I don’t know that I can describe what this line means, but I know that everything inside of me cries out agreement: it is this way.

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–

The leaps that Hopkins makes have to be one of the most poetical things about his poetry, some of the boldest bits and the most satisfying. One is satisfied with something when it demands and one is able to respond, as in a joke when one gets it. In these two lines Hopkins demands. Watch your subjects and predicates, they’re tricky: lights went, morning springs—but the interruptions rush you on so that it is difficult to realize.

Strange to call the rosy-fingered dawn a brown brink, isn’t it? Especially if you want to see the world charged with grandeur. Perhaps it works because of the place from which we are coming, because we are still turning toward the wonder. Perhaps the voiced bilabial plosive suggests the last and energetic verb (I know the withheld verbs create suspense). I am not sure how it works, but I am sure that most ingeniously it works.

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Already we have had the interruption of the ‘Oh’. Already we have had the syntax overmastered by feeling, affection leaping and soaring over ground through which reason would have traversed most tediously slow. And here we have something of the pause which ravishes the heart.

How strange that the word ‘bright’ could mean so much. Bright with grandeur, but also bright with impenetrable mystery. These are not realms and these are not things which plodding logic can ever help us reach. Hopkins has transported us by feeling and suggestion. Here he has shown us how poetry is the apotheosis of though and language, and by bending syntax as a bow, shot his reader like an arrow into a realm where everything is bright and real.

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3 Comments

  1. This brought on several flashbacks to poetry evenings in half-light with sweets a la Katrina. Them was good times.

    Which is the first best Hopkins poem? The Wreck of the Deutschland or Windhover?

    Reply
  2. I recently read something extremely fascinating about ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ but have forgotten what it was. Something about its antecedents, and something one would not have suspected. Makes me want to read it again carefully though.

    Maybe I wasn’t clear on that first sentence, but the idea was that ‘God’s Grandeur’ was the second best sonnet. So now you have your answer.

    Reply
  3. Caleb

     /  April 13, 2010

    Poetry-evenings? With such as this? I would like to have been there!

    Now I need especially to be at work.

    Reply

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