The world is charged with the grandeur of God
I have always loved the morning. There is something especially moving in the cool fresh air, untainted by the day’s hustle and bustle; there is something so provocative in the dawning of light; there is something reassuring in human quietude and nature’s songs to its Creator. Surely when the psalmists wrote things like: “Oh LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”; “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands”; and “How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,” the dew was still on the meadows. One poet who expresses this experience of nature is G. M. Hopkins. In this post I’d like to share a few reflections upon his wonderful little poem, God’s Grandeur.
Hopkins lived and wrote during a transition period of the modern age. The older Victorian Romanticism was wearing thin and beginning to show cracks. It would not be too long before a darker realism would overtake it, in art and literature at least. Hopkins’ poetry stands somewhere in the middle of this transition, looking back to the Victorian Romantics in many ways, all the while also anticipating the reaction to it of the Modernists. He also wrote after a major transition period in his own life. He was raised an Anglican. But after time in Oxford, where he came under the influence of John Henry Newman and the ‘Oxford Movement,’ he became a Catholic. He joined the Jesuit order and in 1877 was ordained a priest. This poem, God’s Grandeur, was composed in that year.
As I see it, there are three parts to this poem. The first part (lines 1-4a) ponders God’s grandeur and curious providence in the happenings in nature; the second part (4b-7) wonders why humans have been such poor stewards of God’s creation; the final part (8-13) again returns to the grandeur in nature, but this time by contemplating its source.
The first part:
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
The first line stands over the poem as a great declaration and the theme to be explored. The notion of being ‘charged’ indicates, first, that the world receives its grandeur from another. It is not intrinsically and independently grandiose. This is not to say that the world is not grandiose. It is a splendidly magnificent place. But it is so having been given its grandeur as a gift. Its source of magnificence is none other than the magnificence of God its Creator. The notion of being charged also indicates the very great capacity to pass the charge along to other things. The world is charged with God’s grandeur so that whoever comes in contact with it receives its ‘shock,’ as it were. It passes along its charge to those who contemplate it. I wonder if Paul’s sentiments expressed in Romans 1 were in Hopkins’ mind when he wrote this line.
“It will flame out,” he continues. What, exactly, will flame out? Does “it” refer to the world or to the charge of God’s grandeur in the world? Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional. Perhaps it refers to both. Insofar as the world grows old and weary, ‘trod upon’ by humans, as he later put it, its grandeur fades like the light reflected from ‘shook foil’ fades. Furthermore, the use of the imagery ‘flame out’ brings to mind Peter’s prophecy that the world will go through its final transformation through fire (2 Pet 3:10). The world itself will flame out and with it, the charge of God’s grandeur.
Still, this fading and flaming out is not outside of God’s control or plan. The third part of the poem returns to this more explicitly, but lines 3-4a, I think, hint at this curious providence of God. The movement towards the flaming out of the charge, the ‘fading’ of the world, Hopkins says is rather a ‘gathering to greatness’: “It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / crushed…” The world as we know it—this present age—will flame out. But in God’s providence the process by which it fades, even the treading upon the earth by humans, does not destroy the grandeur of God in creation, but presses out its essence. Humans will find, and all of nature as well, that despite their intentions as bad stewards, and despite their apparent success, God’s providence is such that they cannot win; his grandeur in creation will appear to fade out, but it will not be overcome: it will overcome.
The second part:
Why do men then now not reck his rod?
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. (4b-7)
The obvious reference of the line 4b is to Psalm 2. The psalm declares that God has set his ruler, Christ, on his throne, and that he rules and governs the world infallibly. So why do the nations rage, the psalmist asks; why do they plot against God and his anointed one? Here, Hopkins notes one particular way in which humans plot against God, in which they rebel against his rule: they misuse and even attempt to destroy the earth that God has placed under their care. Lines 5-6 portray with great vividness and weight the effects of the fall, most clearly in the illusion to ‘toil.’
Human economics (their ‘trade’) are, in this poem, set in opposition to God’s. God’s economy is about love, care, order, and perfection. And, when it becomes necessary, God’s economy is about new creation, continuing care, re-order, and perfection. But the fallen human economy ‘sears’ the earth. It is destructive in its attempt to gain what it can for itself. In the process it takes the order and crisp clarity of nature and ‘blears’ it, and ‘smears’ it, and ‘smudges’ it. Like a dirty fingerprint on a clear window, in their toil—so often against nature—humans leave in their wake a trace of their having been there, of their having rebelled. The earth carries in itself the stench of human rebellion, often long after individual humans have past from it.
But perhaps worse than their toil of rebellion and the smearing of God’s creation is their ingenuity in removing themselves from the immediacy of their consequences. Humans use their God-given capacity for creativity and progress not only to smear the earth, but then to pretend that they are not doing so. They ‘shod’ their feet so that in ‘trodding’ the earth they do not have to feel the bareness of the soil. They do not have to feel the ground pricking back. They can carry on in their business in some relative comfort.
Yet, despite all the apparent success of their rebellion, God will not allow nature to be utterly spoiled. God’s economy of love will trump the humans economy of greed.
The third part:
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. (8-13)
Line 8 seems to contradict line 2: I thought the world and its grandeur would ‘flame out’. But here, I think, by such an abrupt apparent contradiction Hopkins takes us to its resolution by, as it were, taking us to a deeper view of things. There lives, he says, ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’. The resolution, or, better, the hope, is two-fold: the deep source of creation’s goodness and human inability to deplete it. Humans, who in their toil spend nature on themselves, are only able to get at the soil (cf. lines 6-7). That is, their destruction, though real and devastating, remains at a certain surface level. Like a pool fed by an underground spring, humans may muddy the pool’s waters, but the source of the spring remains inaccessible to them, and continues to renew the pool with fresh water.
Hopkins uses a darker image, however, than a muddied pool. From the human perspective, the destruction can at times look complete, as when the sun goes down and darkness covers the face of the earth. Yet, he says, even this darkness is not complete. For the sun rises again. It is in the morning that nature springs forth in freshness again, showing its resilience. And yet, this resilience is not of its own resources. The earth is not as the phoenix, rising from the ashes because of its own indestructible nature. In the midst of destruction Jeremiah cries “Your mercies are new every morning” (Lam. 3:22-23) and Job tells us that God himself visits humans every morning (Job. 7:18). Humans cannot completely spend nature not only because they deplete at only a surface level (no matter how deep the depletion appears to them), but also because God the Holy Spirit provides in his mercy the deep source of creation, and God cannot be depleted.
So much more could be said of the imagery of the Holy Spirit ‘brooding’ over creation: protecting, nurturing, and preparing for life. The explicit reference is to Genesis 1:2 and Deuteronomy 32:11, to God’s creation and providence. But in the context of this poem, as indeed it is in the bible, it is also a reference to God’s re-creation and perfection. The earth will flame out, as said earlier, but not because humans win in their rebellion. Rather, their rebellion presses out the essence of the God’s grandeur in the world, gathering it to greatness which reaches its apex in the re-creation of nature, God’s perfecting it in its re-birth.
This, it seems to me, is the proper way to think of nature. For in doing so the beauty and grandeur of creation leads its contemplator onward past itself, to its source. This also seems to me the best way to think about the current ecological problems. Problems they are, and serious. But we mustn’t despair that humans can ultimately win in their destructive rebellion. God wins. And because God wins, humans can, and ought, to pray and to labor.