Industry and Divinity: On Hopkins’ "God’s Grandeur"

God’s Grandeur
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.

Commentary:

The quick take on this poem: God’s greatness is in Nature (flames from foil; oozing of oil), but Man does not obey Him, as he seems to not recognize God’s greatness. Instead, Man by means of industry puts himself on and into everything. This alienation from God seems to exhaust a seemingly finite world. Yet “nature is never spent,” and one can see in the promise of a new day the work of the Spirit.

Long take: There are many things going on in this poem – one interpretation I read focused on how the flames coming from foil represented electricity (combine with “charge”) and that was Hopkins’ way of saying that God’s grandeur is there even as science progresses, if we will only look. I want to focus on the question of authority, which I think was badly neglected in the primary commentary I read.

Let us take “charged” to be also implying a task for the world, a task that if completed, will make itself manifest in God’s grandeur. We then confront the images of flame from metal, oil from (presumed) olives. Oil as chrism (olive oil that is perfumed) was used to anoint kings, flame was what descended upon the apostles when they were charged with the spread of the Word. What does it mean that God’s authority comes from natural objects, objects that can give power to the knowing or feed the hungry? What does it mean that kings feed, while the believers are themselves an electric current, the passion driving the world?

It looks like the natural order where divine power is manifest empowers man too much in some way. Hence man does not take into his own reckoning the “rod,” yet another symbol of God’s authority which neatly ties into the electricity metaphor.

In place of the electricity of God, man “trods” through generations. Trade and industry cheapen and exhaust nature, and divorce man from it. Yet it cannot be denied that man gains control of circumstances through such labors. He is alienated but protected from the earth, and his imprint is everywhere. There are no kings that feed or apostles that inspire here. Instead, man has used the soil and trade to duplicate godly sustenance and divine motion. The natural order has corrupted man through the power of suggestion.

Against this bleaker picture is the “dearest freshness.” It is not that man is evil and aggrandizing and consuming; it is more he is mistaken about God’s power. Such a mistake is a fortunate one, because it is an underestimating of the power of nature. Our lights only keep us lit in the black night, but black night will fade away, esp. as we remember Eden, which lies eastward. We remember Eden through that “brown brink” – the sacrifice upon the Cross (?) – that brought forth a morning unlike any other. In the beginning was the Word who presided over Creation. Now that Word has allowed the Spirit to descend, and what is remarkable about the Spirit is not merely his heart, but his wings, a motion most unlike electricity or trodding or trade, as it represents the possibility of an upward motion. Inside of Nature, the whole time, was the whole of the Trinity. It just takes history to realize it, because we humans are very slow creatures.

Notice also that the question of authority has dropped aside. The Son called forth the Spirit and the two that are one in three work as a unity. Man’s attempt to assert control is useless in the face of a God who does not seize responsibility for the sake of power, but shares responsibility in order to empower.

1 Thought.

  1. We are stubborn creatures as well. Man always seems to think that they have a better plan than what God has laid out for us. We can all see that man’s plan does not work too well. There is nothing like the fire of God’s love burning in my soul.

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