Themes

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Last Updated on October 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

The Certainty of an Omnipotent God and an Ordered Universe

As the sonnet opens, the speaker describes a world infused with God's power. It manifests or shows itself in a variety of ways: the two ways Hopkins mentions are the flashes of light that come when a person shakes a piece of foil (or a thin metal sheet) and the slow gathering power of black oil made by the crushing of rock over time. One is quick and bright and the other is slow and dark, but both are examples of a mighty God.

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The point is that God is in control: Hopkins argues forcefully that this is not the random universe of the Darwinist and the naturalist writer—in which bad things happen randomly for no reason—but a world created by God, infused with his presence, and managed with a purpose, whether we know what that is or not.

The Inherent Ugliness that Comes from a Lack of Belief in God

The second half of the first stanza of this poem questions why humans don't "reck his rod" or pay attention to God's power ("reck" means to heed or notice, and a rod can symbolize divine or royal power). Here, Hopkins puts the blame for what is wrong with the world—all its toil, the endless trodding footsteps of exhausted labor, and a society "seared, bleared," and "smeared" with the quest for profit—on the shoulders of humans who won't notice or obey God.

The Healing Power of the Holy Spirit, Despite Humans' Lack of Faith

The final stanza shows that God also reveals his power in a different, more paternal way. This is a somewhat different form of power than that shown by the mighty and potentially wrathful God of the first stanza; it is the gentle, compassionate power of the Holy Spirit, rather, that infuses and heals the earth.

Some critics have noted that this sonnet seems to be a response to Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much with Us," and this is most notable in this stanza. Wordsworth sees a modern society that causes people to "lay waste our powers" in service to industry; therefore, he finds himself longing to return to a pagan, faith-infused time. Hopkins, on the other hand, turns the tables and argues that, even if we have abandoned God, the world has not been abandoned by God.

In a series of comforting images, the speaker describes "the dearest freshness deep down things"; this freshness is the Holy Spirit. The speaker envisions it as a brooding bird that envelops and protects the earth. The poem ends on a deeply affirmative note, with God's grandeur surrounding humans in a form of power that does not punish but rather nurtures, loves, and protects.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370

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.

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