Last Reviewed on October 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509
Hopkins's poem is is an expression of optimism about God's eternal renewal of the earth. It takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet divided into two stanzas: the first, eight lines long, is rhymed abbaabba, while the second, six lines long, rhymes cdcdcd. Hopkins mainly writes in iambic pentameter, according to the rules of the Petrarchan form, but he characteristically deviates quite a bit from this measured rhythm.
The poem begins with a statement that the world is "charged" with God's greatness. The verb is central to the line, suggesting that God's grandeur is not some gentle thing—rather, it is like electricity that surges through everything. The second line develops this notion of vitality: the charged world will "flame out," in the same way foil will reflect bright light when shaken. The image is intensified by the alliteration of the vowel and consonant sounds in "shining," "shook," and "foil." This continues into the next line, in which the poet compares God's grandeur to a kind of "oil" or essential substance inherent in all things.
The poem turns on line four, however. The dramatic break in rhythm, with the full stop after the line's first word, "crushed," calls attention to this violent verb. In one sense, Hopkins is finishing his metaphor, suggesting that if the natural world were crushed (perhaps like olives or grapes in a press), divinity would flow out. But the violence of this word, as well as its enjambed position at the beginning of the line, calls attention to it and suggests something of anger, even danger, and foreshadows the question that follows.
That question, which forms the argument of the sonnet, is this: "Why do men then now not reck his rod?"—that is, why do people no longer care about God's judgment or wrath? First, note the inverted syntax and alliteration in the line: "then now not" and "reck his rod" give the sound of the question a kind of internal drive and power while also imbuing it with a sense of terseness.
The rest of the sonnet expounds on this question. The next four lines, brilliant in their use of alliteration and assonance, establish how thoroughly man has defiled the natural world. The line "all is seared with trade" alludes to the "fires of industry" in general terms and the industrial revolution in particular, with its factory labor that "blears, smears" everything; everywhere is "man's smell," and his connection to the natural world is broken, as man's "shod" foot cannot feel the soil.
The second stanza forms an answer to this question. Hopkins suggests that, despite all of man's defilement, nature "is never spent," meaning that nature is a source of infinite regeneration and rejuvenation. No matter how much man "blears" the world, "there lives the dearest freshness deep down things"—which can be thought of as the "shining" or "oil" from the first stanza: emblems of God's spirit, which lies in all things. Morning always comes,
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
Hopkins’s ideas of inscape and instress seem to imply that every object in creation has something like a soul, that is, a power that points toward its divine creator. He begins “God’s Grandeur,” composed in 1877, with the assertion that the world as a whole has this inscape: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Though several senses of the word “charge” may be relevant in this statement, the primary sense seems to be of electric force. God is like an electric charge present in the world. This image is continued in the statement that this divine force “will flame out.” While conveying the idea of a lightning strike implicit in the image of an electrical charge, this new image also suggests the Pentecostal tongue of flame, which introduces one of the aspects of God’s presence in the world as the Holy Spirit, the idea with which the poet ends. Hopkins extends this idea into that of blinding light, another familiar biblical image associated with God, when he says that the flaming out of the grandeur of God is “like the shining of shook foil.” In a letter, Hopkins said that he was thinking of gold foil, which “gives off broad glares like sheet lightning and . . . owing to its zigzag dints and creasings and network of small many cornered facets, a sort of fork lightning too.” Other senses of foil may also enrich this image—for example, the idea of a sword, with its suggestions of challenge and judgment. The next image compares the gathering of the force of God in nature to the way oil gathers in a container as seeds or olives are crushed.
Having asserted the presence, greatness, and force of divine power in nature, the poet poses the main question: “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” He asks why, given the visible power of God in nature, people fail to see it and to show regard for God. The phrase “reck his rod,” which may seem archaic and needlessly difficult, like the entire grammatical arrangement of the question, nevertheless is carefully chosen. “Rod” seems mainly to refer to the scepter, symbolic of power to judge, that points to and rhymes with God; but rods are also often thought of as instruments of punishment. “Reck” is a little used and archaic term, meaning to regard or care for, and both meanings are relevant here. It is also however, related to words such as “recognize” and “reckoning,” with their various connotations. Such meanings amplify the question in several ways. For example, these ideas remind readers that recognizing the power of God in the world leads to knowledge (reckoning in the sense of navigation) about the purpose of one’s life.
As this look at the first quatrain of the sonnet demonstrates, one characteristic of Hopkins’s poetry is a density of diction that allows the reader to pursue individual word choices into areas of meaning that nearly always enrich the depth and suggestiveness of the poem. Hopkins chooses words and images that reverberate deeply. Even though the above analysis may seem to some readers to have “overread” the first four lines, professional readers typically find much more of interest to say about them simply on the basis of word choice and images, and even more when they consider aspects of rhythm, sound, and grammar.
The second quatrain of the octave (or first eight lines) answers the question of the first quatrain. The reason people do not honor God as they should is that they are unaware of God’s grandeur. The poet says that generations have walked the earth, searing or burning it for business purposes, blearing or making it difficult to see and smearing it or making it less visible with work of all kinds. It is a complex idea that has at least two meanings. First, the world itself is altered by human labor so that it reveals God’s grandeur less clearly and directly. Second, however, the processes of trade and labor alter human perception, so that people are less attuned to seeing the inscapes of nature. The poet repeats this idea in the last two lines of the octave, where he says that nature is smudged by man and smells like man and that, because people wear clothing, they are less likely to perceive nature directly.
Having asserted that God’s power in nature is brilliantly if sporadically visible but that human labor obscures its visibility and weakens the human ability to perceive it, the poet turns to the miracle of Spirit’s continuing presence in the sestet, the last six lines of the sonnet. The poet says that even though labor blinds people to it, God’s grandeur persists. At the center of every natural thing is a freshness that the poet can see. This realization is just as true as that the darkness of sunset does not presage eternal darkness but rather a new dawning. These observations mean that the Holy Ghost is present, that it continually renews the “bent” or misshapen world, just as a bird—a typical image of the Holy Spirit—broods over its nest, pouring energy into its egg (the world) so that it will hatch to reveal a new bird, the double of itself within.
The richness and depth of “God’s Grandeur” is apparent in Hopkins’s use of diction, imagery, and metaphor, but these techniques do not exhaust the art of the poem. One can learn a lot more about it by studying how Hopkins arranges alliteration, meter, and rhyme. For example, one of the astonishing features of this poem is that while it is especially rich in language, it is very confined in form. Not only did Hopkins use one of the most restrictive forms in English poetry, the sonnet, but he chose one of the most difficult forms of the sonnet, the Italian, which uses only four rhyming sounds at the ends of its lines. Such a choice seems quite appropriate for a poem about how the infinite energy of God is constrained in the physical form of the world.
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