Where, in this exhausted, broken world, is God’s grandeur found?
By 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.
“God’s Grandeur” — the title isn’t just a description of what the poem is describing, it’s a challenge and a question. Where, in this exhausted, broken world, is God’s grandeur found? We know, as the psalms say, that the “heavens proclaim the glory of God,” and sometimes we see that glory shining through majestic mountain scenery, and sparkling evening skies, but rarely. What about the ugliest parts of the world? The slums, the polluted cities — where’s God’s grandeur then?
Hopkins starts off with a proclamation of hope, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It’s there, he promises us. But the word “charged” has a double meaning — it can mean an electrical current, an invisible but powerful energy running through the world, but it also carries with it the idea of duty. A man who is “charged” with a task is responsible for doing it well. And the world, it seems, is not living up to its task.
“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod.” The weight and the weariness of man, living on the earth century after century, depleting the Earth’s resources, sacrificing whatever we can to the god of commerce, has taken a toll. Even if the poor, battered Earth could muster up the energy to revive its former life, we wouldn’t notice. “Nor can foot feel, being shod.”
“Why do men then now not reck his rod?” The rhythm forces you to articulate every word. The question isn’t, “Has man overstepped his bounds?” It’s “How is it that man hasn’t managed to ruin everything?” Because from where we’re standing, it looks like we’ve completely undone every last trace of Eden.
The first stanza ends on a bleak note, and I’m always tempted to read the second stanza as its polar opposite. “Everything’s actually okay! It’s not really so bad!” That’s not at all what Hopkins is saying, though. Nature has, indeed, been giving and giving, for eons — but it’s not depleted. Not because of its own power, though, but on account of this mysterious “freshness,” a perpetual newness, that lives deep down in the world.
He starts with that image, but he doesn’t finish it — immediately, he switches to a new one:
“And though the last lights off the black West went,
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –”
Notice, we’re not at the morning yet. In his scene, the last light of the sun has just gone down, and the world is plunged into blackness. Pitch black or not, though, he is counting on the light coming up again, and not just rising, but springing up, a word that conveys the sun’s own eagerness and energy in its rising.
Why this joy, after all the indignity the Earth has suffered? Not because of anything the Earth itself has to offer; it’s as finite as we are. But we can count on the sunrise, on the springtime, on the rejuvenation of the world day after day, because of who is taking care of this “bent world.”
Just as with his initial image of the world receiving an electrical charge, or the far-away sunlight flashing off a piece of shaken foil, here again, the reason for the world’s freshness isn’t from within, it’s from the outside. Eggs can’t move, can’t generate their own warmth. They need to borrow their heat from their mother if they’re ever going to hatch. There’s a kind of security built into this image. The mother bird won’t neglect her nest. The world is still here, still functioning, still putting up green shoots after the last ones were trampled — not because of its own power, but because it’s being nourished by an outside source.
Maybe we have been given a charge to safeguard God’s world, so that his grandeur can be seen in and through it. But then, maybe we aren’t as much in control of that as we think, for better or for worse. Maybe, despite the trade and the toil, and the wearing down of the world, its fate isn’t really in our hands at all.