God’s Grandeur; Gerard Manley Hopkins

GOD’S GRANDEUR – GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

It is time to step back from consider follies of humanity and focus on the Grandeur of God’s Creation and to see the natural world as a reflection of God and not self existent. With so much discussion on the environment (much stupid from extreme green groups and from those who simply exploit nature) it is a good time to reflect on our relationship to Creation. What better than to consider Hopkin’s marvellous poem;

“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

  1. 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 of 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.

(The photos are mostly from the North West of England and the mine is in New Mexico)

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) wrote God’s Grandeur while living at St Beuno’s monastery near St Asaph in the Vale of Clwyd, where he studied theology from 1873 to 1877. In those years Hopkins wrote some of his finest and most hopeful poetry; The Windhover, Pied Beauty and The Starlit Night. But perhaps the finest is God’s Grandeur which is a deeply religious poem of the wonder of the natural world, or creation as Hopkins would say. Many have been moved by this poem and two books on a Christian concern for the environment use words from the poem as the title; Bent World by Ron Elsdon and Bright Wings by Peter Harris, which describes the unusual missionary project of opening up a nature reserve on the Algarve.

Yet though this poem has universal appeal with its evocation of the natural world and human responsibility for the environment, it is totally rooted in Hopkins’ experience of the landscape of the Clwydian Hills and the environs. Perhaps we can imagine Hopkins taking a long walk, or a series of walks from St Beuno’s.

 

As we consider the first four lines, let us imagine Hopkins ascending the hill above the monastery, Moel Maenfa which rises to just under one thousand feet. Perhaps on occasions he climbed this during a sunny spell after a heavy shower, a time when the Vale of Clwyd is especially beautiful, with the atmosphere crystal clear and whatever the season the colours at their best, whether the browns of winter or the greens of summer. Everything stands out in great sharpness, with the patchwork quilt of field and hedgerow leading up to the heather of the Denbigh Moors and beyond that the hills and mountains of Snowdonia. The whole landscape is more beautiful than normal, if that were possible and

“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

  1. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

373

The whole vale seems to have an electrostatic charge, and all stands on end. Its enhanced reality seems also unreal, but in fact proclaiming the reality of God the Creator. Hopkins is almost echoing one of the nature psalms;

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

(Psalm 19 verses 1 -2 or else Psalm 104.)

DSCF3617475

001407

If he were a Protestant rather than a Jesuit, he may have been echoing Calvin in the Institutes, “the elegant structure of the world serving us as a kind of mirror, in which we may behold God.” Perhaps he was, as he was an Anglican until his early twenties. God’s grandeur in nature to Hopkins is so great that he cannot understand any who does not believe in the Creator, and so asks the question, “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” He meant those who did not reckognise(sic) God’s rod and sceptre, and was perhaps thinking of the physicist John Tyndall who attacked the Roman Catholic Church at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast in 1870 for their alleged hostility to science.

From the beauty of the Vale of Clwyd Hopkins then takes us eight miles eastwards to one of the ugliest parts of North Wales – Halkyn Mountain, where at that time there was extensive lead and zinc mining, which exposed the grey limestone and covered everything with grey dust so that even the leaves were grey. The poor fellows who worked there were badly paid and also covered in grey dust;

198

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.

 

Not that anyone would want to walk barefoot in a mine or in a quarry, though they would on lush green grass. These lines simply evoke desolation and environmental degradation, as the sprung rhythm collapses into a flat lifeless monotone. However Hopkins wishes to go beyond pollution to a rejection of God’s grandeur, as the poet T.S.Eliot expressed it years later, “a wrong attitude to nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude to God.”

 

From the dismal desolation of Halkyn Mountain, Hopkins descended a couple miles to Holywell and took refreshment at St Winefrede’s Well;

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

DSCF3682DSCF2874

The clear waters of the well washed away all that “is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;” and Hopkins felt clean again, as it were, washed in the baptismal waters which regenerated him. With this new life in him Hopkins could return to the summit of Moel Maenfa just in time to witness a glorious sunset;

And though the last lights of the black West went

and Hopkins evokes a sunset over the Denbigh Moors as the shadowy silhouettes of the Carneddau gradually fade into utter blackness, as the deep orange of the gloaming darkens and merges into the hills.

 

The utter blackness does not last as a few hours later dawn arrives to ussher in a new day and a new start with new hope.

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.

370258

From considering the re-invigorating of the dawn Hopkins moved to the imagery of the First Day of Creation in Genesis Chapter One. When it came to Genesis Hopkins was no biblical fundamentalist thinking of a literal Six Day Creation, but rather drew out some of the more subtle meaning of the Bible. (As an aside there are more six-day literalists today than there were in his day! It is incredible that anyone with more than one brain-cell can believe such rubbish.) According to Genesis just before “And God said, ‘Let there be light.'”, we read “and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” Hopkins took an old understanding of Genesis whereby the Holy Spirit/Ghost re-ordered the originally formless Creation. He takes that idea and applies it to the dawn as symbolic of the Holy Ghost recreating and repairing a damaged world. As the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit the line “broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” encapsulates the creative power of the Holy Spirit.

 

The poem is one of great faith in the grandeur of God both as Creator and in the person of the Holy Spirit as Re-creator and Renewer, and is thus almost uncharacteristic of Hopkin’s more mournful style, which reached its climax in No Worst written in 1885. In view of the greater environmental degradation and the widespread awareness of environmental issues today one wonders whether Hopkins would be as hopeful today. Perhaps he would – as he believed in God’s Grandeur.

 

Michael Roberts

 

 

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “God’s Grandeur; Gerard Manley Hopkins

  1. Paul Braterman

    “John Tyndall who attacked the Roman Catholic Church at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast in 1870 for their alleged hostility to science.” Do you mean Tyndall’s 1874 address, at http://www.victorianweb.org/science/science_texts/belfast.html; which is full of the kind of accommodationism that you and I espouse and has some we could name frothing at the mouth? And a strong case could be made that in 1870 (or 1874), the Roman Catholic Church WAS hostile to science.

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s