Saturday, April 9, 2011

God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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.

I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins because of the way it sounds. That sounds reductive, I realize, but though I have tried in the past week of poems to mine my way through deeper meanings, each of the poems I have chosen give me considerably auditory satisfaction. After all, a poem hits the ear far before it can be untangled in the mind. None of them, however, can match Hopkins for sheer musicality, which is the result of a fairly ordinary innovation that Hopkins called "sprung rhythm."

The idea is simple: Instead of counting all the syllables in a line, count only the stressed ones. The poem above, "God's Grandeur," is a typical sonnet, except the number of unstressed syllables varies. Each line, then, becomes wonderfully dynamic, tumbling over itself in the rhythm of human speech: "It will flame out, like shining from shook foil," or, "And though the last lights off the black West went..." This effect is even more pronounced, perhaps, in Hopkins' more famous "As kingfishers catch fire":

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name...

And then, a dash of enjambment, and a sprinkle of interior rhyme to taste.

Once we have appreciated the way these lines resound in our ears, then perhaps we can mine those deeper meanings. "God's Grandeur" displays great sincerity, but not much depth in the sense of irony or subtlety. The world, Hopkins tells us, is replete with the wonder of God, which in particular moments or places may flash "like shining from shook oil," or--ahem--secrete, like "the ooze of oil." And yet we are obstinate and heedless, and allow ourselves to become distant from God's creation, so that everything around us "wears man's smudge and share's man's smell." We can't even feel God's earth for the shoes on our feet.

But no matter. The sestet reminds us that God's grandeur cannot be depleted, and that it resides perpetually in nature, waiting for us. The last lines are a peculiarly Christian kind of hope, not totally dissimilar from the end of "I Am" but without any iota of doubt:

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.

Brent and I once had a long conversation about whether it was possible to be completely orthodox in religious sentiment and to be a great writer. My point was that what we value most in literature is creativity and literature is what is strange, unusual, or surprising, none of which, by definition, orthodoxy is. (I say this as someone who is, for the most part, quite orthodox.) Hopkins' poetry often strikes me as the greatest of all orthodox poetry, or the most orthodox of all great poetry. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, after all, and thought that poetry could be part of his vocation. I am not trying to devalue poems like "God's Grandeur," which is one of my favorites, but I would understand that for someone who is not religious, such a poem might seem beautiful but hollow. Such a sentiment one might find, in less glittering words, in any of the pulpits of the day.

And yet Hopkins followed up such poems with his "Terrible Sonnets," which sound far more like John Clare:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.

Why include "God's Grandeur" instead of this sonnet? I don't know; it seems right to say that the Terrible Sonnet is more genuine, or if not that, more personal. Perhaps I've had enough of agony. Perhaps because, though the chronology is reversed, the sestet of "God's Grandeur" responds to the bitterness of the Terrible Sonnet. Maybe I just like the sound of it.


Brent Waggoner said...

Good post. I am not confident that a bleaker poem is more personal or more artistic. Not to say that Hopkins is guilty of this, but it seems quite simple to create moving art that appeals to the darker side of a person; after all, who hasn't experienced sadness, depression, anger, etc.? Far more difficult, I think is to produce something artistic and life-affirming. I find this quality far more rare than literary quality or a practiced use of irony. I like this poem because it acknowledges that, though the world is not as Hopkins feels it should be, he has a great hope, and he communicates that with such sentiment that anyone, religious or not can appreciate.

Christopher said...

"Far more difficult, I think is to produce something artistic and life-affirming." Isn't that the argument Mitch Albom used to argue that Bucket List should win best picture?

Brent Waggoner said...

Mitch Albom > All

Christopher said...

In seriousness, I do think it is a fallacy to assume that bleaker art is better art. I think very few people really believe that, but we probably do it subconsciously. But I'm not comfortable extolling art that's "life-affirming" without regard for quality; there's a lot of dreck out there that affirms life pretty strongly.

Brent Waggoner said...

Completely agree. It just seems like uplifting art that is actually good is far rarer than the downbeat version.

Christy said...

Belated, but... I agree re: the musicality bit. I once attempted to write something about his "Wreck of the Deutschland" and realized that my mind was almost slipping over the words, so caught up in the movements of rhythm that it failed to capture the meaning. My impression was that of remembering that I had danced, but forgetting what the conversation was about. I don't mind though... Hopkins is glorious.