As a Jesuit priest who had converted to Catholicism in the summer of 1866, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s mind was no doubt saturated with the Bible (Bergonzi 34). Although in “God’s Grandeur” Hopkins does not use any specific quotations from the Bible, he does employ images that evoke a variety of biblical verses and scenes, all of which lend meaning to his poem. Hopkins “creates a powerful form of typological allusion by abstracting the essence–the defining conceit, idea, or structure–from individual scriptural types” (Landow, “Typological” 1). Through its biblical imagery, the poem manages to conjure up, at various points, images of the Creation, the Fall, Christ’s Agony and Crucifixion, man’s continuing sinfulness and rebellion, and the continuing presence and quiet work of the Holy Spirit. These images combine to assure the reader that although the world may look bleak, man may yet hope, because God, through the sacrifice of Christ and the descent of His Holy Spirit, has overcome the world.
The opening line of “God’s Grandeur” is reminiscent both of the Creation story and of some verses from the Book of Wisdom. The word “charged” leads one to think of a spark or light, and so thoughts of the Creation, which began with a spark of light, are not far off: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Gen. 1.3). Yet this “charge” was not a one time occurrence; “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins 1). Or, in the words of Wisdom 1:7, “The spirit of the Lord fills the world” (Boyle 25). This line of the poem also sounds like Wisdom 17:20: “For the whole world shone with brilliant light . . .” Nor does the similarity end with the first part of this biblical verse. The author of Wisdom proceeds to tell us that the light “continued its works without interruption; Over the Egyptians alone was spread oppressive night . . . yet they were to themselves more burdensome than the darkness” (Wisd. 17.20-21). Here lies the essence of Hopkins’s poem. In lines five through eight, he will show us the “oppressive night” that men bring upon themselves in their disregard for God and His creation. But he will also show us, in the final sestet of his poem, that the light will nonetheless continue to shine “without interruption.” God will not cease working in the world.
Indeed, His grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil” (Hopkins 2). The word “flame” is often associated with God’s grandeur. In Daniel 7:9, the prophet describes God’s throne as being like “the fiery flame.” In Revelation, “the Son of God . . . hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire” (Rev. 2.18). In Exodus, God appears “unto Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exod. 3.2; Boyle 31). After promising Samson’s parents a son, the angel of the Lord “ascended in the flame of the altar” (Judges 13.20). It is possible, too, that this flame is meant to recall the “cloven tongues like as of fire” that appeared above men on the day of Pentecost, when God’s grandeur was shown through the descent of His Holy Spirit and in the speaking of tongues (Acts 2.1-4; Boyle 27-28).
The second half of this image is primarily a scientific one. It refers to gold leaf foil as used to measure electrical charges in Faraday’s famous experiment (Boyle 26). But there is also a biblical significance. Proverbs 4:18 tells us that “the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” Just as light is reflected from gold foil, flashing out in multiplying rays, so too does the Light of God, which leads men, continue to increase. This image in one way ties into lines three and four of Hopkins’s poem, in which God’s grandeur “gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” Both images demonstrate a process of increase in God’s grandeur. Gethsemane “means the place of the olive-press'” (Landow, “Typological” 6; Boyle 32). It was there that God’s grandeur “gathered to a greatness,” for it was there that Christ wrestled with doubt and fear and, gathering His strength, finally made an irrevocable choice to glorify His Father: “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22.42).
The olive, in itself, is not particularly valuable. It can be eaten, but until it is pressed, it has no further use. Once pressed into oil, however, it was used in biblical times for cooking (1 Kings 17.12-13), lighting lamps (Exod. 27.20), anointing (Ps. 23.5), binding wounds (Luke 10.34), and in perfume (Luke 8.46). It was very valuable, and the promised land was referred to as, among other things, a “land of oil olive” (Deut. 8.8). This, then, is an apt metaphor for God’s grandeur as revealed through Jesus Christ. Had Christ chosen, at that point of agony in the garden, not to submit to the crucifixion, His entire life up to that point would have been (like the uncrushed olive) of little value. His teachings and His miracles would probably have been forgotten in time, and man would still have no adequate atonement for sin. But just as the olive is crushed to reveal something costly and useful, so too did Christ chose to be crushed to bring forth His priceless blood, which saves men (Landow, “Typological” 6).
Accepting this role was no easy matter for Christ. Robert Boyle sees the “main point of the olive oil image as being that something hidden, beautiful, and wonderfully powerful is revealed” (31). But an at least equally important point is how that hidden something is revealed. Boyle believes the olive oil image refers not to “the gathering of ooze from the cracks of a press” but rather to gentle kneading with a hand: “the beauty and power is hidden within the olive and can be brought out without a press at all, e.g., by the pressure of the fingers or palms” (32). This seems unlikely, however, given that at Gethsemane, Christ was not lightly pressed as if in a palm, but was rather weighed down and crushed with great agony, sweating “as it were great drops of blood” and begging that, if at all possible, His cup be taken from Him (Luke 22.42-44; Boyle 32). Furthermore, it was at the oil-press that Christ, in order to purchase “beauty and life,” chose to submit to an even greater “crushing”: the beams of the bark that would grind Him down as He bore His cross up the hill of Calvary, the pain that would come from being nailed through His hands and feet, and the slow suffocation that would precede His death (Landow, “Typological” 6).
George P. Landow acknowledges the significance of Christ’s suffering. He describes one of Hopkins’s “basic and generating conceit”:
. . . higher beauty and higher victory can come forth only when something . . . is subject to greater pressure and crushed or bruised . . . true beauty, true life, true victory can only be achieved, as Christ has shown, by being bruised and crushed. (“Allusion” 1).
This conceit, Landow explains, is based upon the type of Genesis 3:15, which says: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel.” Christ is the one who bruises Satan’s head, defeating the adversary through His own bruising, His crucifixion.
To the casual reader, this image of the “ooze of oil / Crushed” may seem unnecessarily crude. It contrasts sharply with the brilliant metaphor of flame and shining. As Virginia Ellis writes, the image of “shaken goldfoil,” once properly understood, “vividly suggests both the breadth and the sudden flashing depth of God’s power” (129-30). The word “ooze,” on the other hand, generally possesses a disagreeable connotation. Yet this contrast must be deliberate. For the Incarnation is, after all, a very crude thing. An omnipotent, omniscient God chose to come down from the heavenly realm and take on the form of a mere man, subjecting Himself to the limitations of humanity, in order that He might die a cruel death to save men who were “yet sinners” (Rom. 5.8). The brilliance of lines one and two of Hopkins’s poem contrast with the crudeness of lines three and four to reveal God’s amazing condescension, which is part of His grandeur.
Given this awesome condescension, and given the emotional and physical pain to which Christ subjected Himself, Hopkins cries plaintively, “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” (4). Most likely, this reference to “rod” will evoke in the reader’s mind the image from Revelation in which Christ rules men “with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19.15). But a more appropriate allusion may be found in Isaiah: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (11.1-2; emphasis added). The “his” of this line of the poem must grammatically refer to the “God” of line one. God’s rod, then, is Christ Himself. God gave up his rod, His only Son, as a sacrifice for the very men who (we will soon see) fail both to perceive and to honor Him in His creation. “And the very blame which Hopkins heaps on man” in lines five through eight of the poem “is witness to his vivid realization that man does not need to be behaving as he does, that the Fall has been undone by the Second Adam” (Boyle 37). Indeed, the rod of iron that awaits these men could become for them a rod of comfort. If they would but trust in God’s Rod, they too, like the psalmist, might say, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Ps. 23.4).
But “instead of recognizing the authority of God’s majesty and grandeur in nature, as St. Paul says he should,” writes Boyle, “. . . man tramples it in his contempt for and ignorance of his and its Creator” (35-6). This is made clear in line five of the poem: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod.” The image resembles God’s complaint in Ezekiel: “Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pastures?” (34.18). It is bad enough that man has disregarded the beauty of God’s creation and failed to see His grandeur in it. But man has done worse than ignore it, he has polluted it with his own sinful nature; he has brought darkness upon himself in the very midst of God’s light.
“And all is seared with trade,” writes Hopkins (6). Nothing has escaped man’s materialistic touch. Men, consumed by their own interests, have forgotten James’s warning:
Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is you life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. (Jas. 4.13-14)
This image of all being seared with trade conjures up a picture of the symbolic wicked city of Babylon, where men trade in “gold, and silver, and precious stones . . . horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men” (Rev. 18.12-13). Men have put their trust in the produce of their own hands, caring nothing for the soul. Indeed, they have chosen the beast over God, and have perhaps been seared not just with trade, but in order to trade, for “no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Rev. 13.17). Yet all of man’s monotonous, materialistic striving will come to nothing: “And . . . as many as trade by sea, stood afar off . . . weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships . . . for in one hour is she made desolate” (Rev. 17-19).
Men, laboring to amass useless wealth, have become “bleared, smeared with toil” (Hopkins 6). This, argues Boyle, should not be taken merely as an indictment of industrialism:
The situation reaches far more deeply into the nature of man . . . After the Fall man . . . has to tread the world and to sweat . . . (Genesis, 3:17-19) . . . But Hopkins’ emphasis is on the “all” of “all is seared with trade.” And his complaint is that the soil is not cleared here and there, but it is bare. He is not here condemning man for the Fall, but for what he adds to the Fall from his own personal malice and rebellion against God . . . (36)
This image of bare soil pertains not just to man’s destruction of nature, but to his spiritual bareness. In Christ’s parable of the sower, we learn that:
A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it . . . And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and chocked it. (Luke 8.5-7)
Nature is the vehicle of this metaphor, but man’s spirit is the tenor. The soil is bare just as man’s soul is bare; he has borne no spiritual fruit. Either he has rejected God’s good news, as if trampling it beneath his feet, or he has at first received it gladly, but then been “chocked with the cares and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8.14).
Not only is the soil “bare now,” but “nor can foot feel, being shod” (Hopkins 7-8). Again we are reminded of the scene of the burning bush, in which God tells Moses: “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3.5; Boyle 31; Ellis 131). We see man “profaning with shod feet what should be holy ground, not bare soil” (Boyle 31). In the Bible, to be barefoot is to feel. In Moses’s case, the feeling is reverence. In the case of those defeated by war and lead away barefoot, the feeling is shame (Isa. 20.2-4). And in the case of David ascending the Mount of Olivet to seek God’s guidance during the rebellion of Absalom, the feeling is sorrow: “And David . . . wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot” (2 Samuel 15.30). But in Hopkins’s poem, the men are shod, symbolizing the fact that they have become calloused, incapable of spiritual feeling. If men are to be shod with anything, they should be “shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6.15).
The picture painted in lines five through eight of “God’s Grandeur” leaves little apparent hope for man. But we have been forewarned in the first three lines of the poem that God’s light has not been eclipsed by man’s darkness, and that His grandeur will yet “flame out.” Hopkins does not abandon this promise, but resumes it with full force in the final sestet of his poem. “And for all this,” he avows, “nature is never spent” (9). The word “nature” may be taken to apply, on three different levels, to physical nature (i.e. rocks, trees, animals, etc.), human nature (i.e. the human race), and divine nature (i.e. God).
Physical nature, despite man’s misuse of it, has not been spent, but continues to be rejuvenated and to bare witness to its Creator. Indeed, God has promised peace in nature, vowing that “they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isa. 11.6-9). Likewise, human nature is never spent, “for God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him” (Wisd. 2.23). And finally, divine nature is never spent–that is, God is not exhausted, and He has not given up on man. He will continue to labor, through the Holy Spirit, to bring men to repentance, helping them to become “partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” (2 Pet. 1.4). Man has not be “spent”; he has not been sold to Satan. To the contrary, he has, in fact, been “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6.20).
This price, “Christ’s decent into human flesh,” and His crucifixion, is what makes the “freshness” of line ten of the poem “dearest” (Landow, “Typological” 6). This “freshness” is probably meant to evoke and consequently to defy the finality of the image of the wanton destruction of nature in Wisdom. The word “freshness” is unique, being found nowhere in the Protestant Bible. But in Wisdom, men, “thinking not aright” and believing their lives to be short and mortal, say, “let us . . . use the freshness of creation avidly . . . Let no meadow be free from our wantonness” (Wisd. 2.1-9). When interpreting the poem on the level of physical nature, we should not underestimate “the anguish that Hopkins . . . felt because industrial man not only failed to respond to the forms of nature but in fact seemed dedicated to their annihilation” (Bump 159). Hopkins wrote in one of his journals:
The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more. (Bump 159)
Yet, despite the fact that man abuses nature for his transitory pleasure, he does not have the power to destroy it altogether, for there still “lives the dearest freshness deep down things” (Hopkins 10).
The “deep down” things signify not only the rejuvenation of nature, but the rejuvenation of man through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s death, while ransoming sinners, also made it possible that the Holy Spirit might be sent into the world (John 16.7). The symbolic dove, whose image we see in lines 13-14, expresses “the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in creatures and above all in the souls of men” (Boyle 37). The Spirit dwells within all believers, but It will also continue Its efforts to bring unbelievers to repentance, for God is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3.9). And although Christ was crushed down, emotionally and physically, He rose again, and He will also come again.
“Only seemingly,” writes Ellis, “is God’s energy fallen, crushed, debased in this world” (128). For, even “though the last lights off the black West went / Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs” (Hopkins 11-12). Or, as 2 Samuel 23:4 prophesies, “he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.” Again, the vehicle of the metaphor is nature, and its rejuvenation symbolizes Christ’s coming into the world. This image of morning springing from darkness also draws our attention to the words of Isaiah: “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily” (58.8). And again:
I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them. (Isaiah 42.16; emphasis added)
The continuing presence of the Holy Spirit is proof of this promise. God continues to work through the Holy Ghost, who “over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings” (Hopkins 13-14). The bent (crooked) world has not been abandoned by God; it will be made straight, for it has been conquered by Him, and it is still being protected by Him.
The bird imagery of line fourteen is drawn from the baptism of Jesus, when “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him” (Matt. 3.17; Boyle 38). This dove imagery, in turn, is meant to recall Genesis, in which the Holy Spirit apparently broods over the world: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (1.2; Boyle 38). The wing imagery possess a variety of positive connotations. Wings are associated in the Bible with God’s healing (Mal. 4.2), with His protection (Ruth 2.12; Ps. 17.8, 26.7, 57.1, 61.4, 63.7, 91.4; Matt. 23.37), with the strength that He imparts to man (Isa. 40.31; Exod. 19.4), and with His conquest. This last association, though not the most obvious, is perhaps the most crucial. When God is said to “spread His wings over” a city, it means He has conquered it (Jer. 48.40). At the end of “God’s Grandeur,” God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, has spread His “bright wings” over the “bent world,” implying that He is not only protecting, healing, and strengthening it, but that, despite the seeming triumph of darkness, He has already conquered the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was crushed like an olive for this very purpose.
The world remains charged with the grandeur of God, “in spite of all mankind has done and is doing to pollute and pervert and tread out its radiance” (Ellis 129). God, through the constant presence of His Holy Spirit, continues to rejuvenate physical nature as well as the human spirit; both are “being made over anew” (Wisd. 19.6). So, however dark and dreary this world may appear (and does appear in lines five through eight of the poem), we must not surrender hope. For as Christ exhorted, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33).