Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The problem that Hopkins poses in the octave is that of the human response to God: Why do people ignore the beauty and grandeur of God’s presence in the natural world? The problem of the world’s beauty and its divine origin was a central one for Hopkins, who was a talented artist and musician as well as a poet. His sketchbooks are full of detailed drawings of forms he found in nature: shells, twigs, waves, and trees. When he converted to Catholicism in 1866, he gave up his original plan of becoming a painter and decided to become a Jesuit priest. At that time, he worried that his attraction to the natural world and his love of music, art, and poetry was in contradiction to his religious vocation. He feared that his aesthetic impulses would draw him away from the strict asceticism he believed he must practice. He destroyed most of his early poems when he took religious orders.

Hopkins’s resolution of his conflict came about when he was deeply moved by a newspaper account of a shipwreck that killed five German nuns. He told his rector about his feelings. The rector remarked that he wished someone would write a poem about the subject, and Hopkins took this casual comment as a personal mandate. He broke his seven-year poetic silence by writing “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” After that, he continued to write poetry. In his poems, Hopkins explored his complicated feelings of faith and doubt. By celebrating the beauty of the natural world as an expression of God’s power and “grandeur,” Hopkins could reconcile his religious faith with his love of nature.

Repeatedly in his poetry Hopkins used his deep love of nature’s beauty to reaffirm his belief in the God who created and maintained the world. In “God’s Grandeur,” this theme is developed with a great technical virtuosity to create a passionate poem that is somehow both a warning and a reassurance. Although Bridges delayed publication of Hopkins’s work, fearing that readers would find it strange and difficult, contemporary readers find Hopkins an exciting and powerful poet. It is difficult to imagine modern poetry without the groundbreaking work of Gerard Manley Hopkins.