“God’s Grandeur”


IMG_Hopkins7_fieldsHopkins Meditation 7

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.

Sometimes a single written line has the power to burn itself into our memory, imagination, and perspective. This is a big claim, I know, but I somehow know it’s true. Many of Shakespeare’s lines or couplets of lines have this power. Many passaged in the Bible have this power. And, I’m currently experiencing this same sensation of importance and transformative power in the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur.”

“The World is charged with the grandeur of God.”

I think it’s the word “charged” that does it for me. It’s the right word for what he’s trying to convey, namely, that God’s grandeur is seen everywhere and in everything, from the seemingly common and mundane to the unique and near-exalted elements of the world. He doesn’t say “electrified” or “empowered” or “electrified,” though these words might work in terms of meaning. No. The world is charged with God’s grandeur.

Hopkins’s examples are a bit obscure to we in this modern age, and have often been misinterpreted. When he says God’s grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil,” he’s not talking about tinfoil. (Your mind went there, didn’t it? You can admit it.) He’s talking about pressed gold foil, which he wrote about in his letters. Such foil has a unique quality: it can look dull and yet in the right light it nearly flashes out in jagged “sheet lightning” Hopkins observed. This gold foil represents what I called the unique and near-exalted earlier.

In turn, Hopkins describes something which I called mundane in the “ooze of oil/Crushed.” He’s most likely referring to olive oil, not crude oil. In Hopkins’s day, such oil had many uses and was produced in staggering quantities for various sorts of consumption and applications. Yet God’s grandeur is even seen in this common item, which could be used for such everyday purposes as eating and lighting to more sanctified purposes like anointing a priest.

After describing these examples of God’s grandeur, Hopkins turns his attention to mankind. Why do we not see these things? Why do we not notice? Why do we “not reck his rod?” In other words, why do we not fear (reverence) his rod, his direction and guidance and, yes, discipline? Instead, we plod on, we labor on, we do  “sear” and “blear” our perception and our understanding with our toil. We’ve left our mark on nature, our “smudge” and “smell.”

And yet, nature still bursts forth God’s grandeur.  “Nature is never spent.” There is a freshness in it, “deep down,” that continually wells up despite the continual cycle of days. The sun does set as the “last lights off the black West” go out, but each morning is new as it “springs” up “eastward.” It springs so because the Holy Ghost “broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings!” The grandeur of God is still there, is still new, is still warm and bright.

God’s grandeur does remain even as our eyes grow dim and dull. Today, I encourage you (and me) to go out, to look around, to ask God that we might see a bit of his grandeur in the creation around us. We don’t need the unique like gold-foil. It is in even the simple, the common, the mundane, like a cut blade of grass. The world is charged.



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About Kent Travis

If you are enjoying Kent Travis' teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What?  It's packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn't believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It's awesome!

Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.  




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