Poetry Review: G. M. Hopkins

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A detailed literary review of Hopkin's poem "God's Grandeur".

Submitted: December 27, 2011

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 27, 2011



"God’s Grandeur"

By Gerard Manley Hopkins





Literary Review by Niamh Jiménez.


Read the poem here: http://www.bartleby.com/122/7.html


The first four lines of the octave evoke the divine grandiosity and majesty of God’s presence, equating it with an electric current or the gradual oozing of oil from an olive. Hopkins summons up these sensuous images to convey the qualities of God’s presence; he may emerge ephemerally as a luminous flash or slither out from the commonest of fruits as a gentle, unhurried discharge. While the electric pulse manifests violently, the welling of the olive is a direct result of man’s patient curiosity as he pokes at the fruit, exerting just enough pressure to rupture the barrier between himself and God. The poet conveys the message that God is omniscient, his presence permeating the earth, the firmaments, and the earth’s crops. His presence pervades the earth and all of its natural resources, the most important of which is oil.

Oil not only represents our chief fuel and trading commodity: it is a biblical allegory which represents Jesus’ body and his redemptive offering to Mankind. Hopkins presents a stark contrast between the image of the slow, sensuous weeping of the olive and industry’s violent, laborious extraction of oil from the ground; the latter quenches man’s insatiable thirst for money and power, while abandoning the need for spiritual enrichment. In presenting us with the concept of the electrical charge, Hopkins not only evokes God’s dynamic and transient bursts of presence, the phrase also connotes science and modern invention. Hopkins, having written the poem in 1877, alludes to the contemporary emergence of scientific inventions, such as electricity; these “man-made innovations” were considered the sole product of man’s creativity and genius, produced without any divine intervention or assistance.  In fact, many of this era held atheistic beliefs, repudiating God and religion, while promoting science as the true creator and supplier of the modern world. Hopkins on the other hand, does not depreciate science or God’s omnipresence, but rather presents the two as symbiotic and interdependent.

In the next four lines of the octave, Hopkins poses a stark contrast between the magnificence of the natural world and the surface denigration of the earth by its careless human stewards. Line four demonstrates a creative metrical irregularity; Hopkins deviates from the convention of iambic pentameter (stressed unit followed by an unstressed unit) by creating successive stressed units, emphasising the words “Crush” and “Why”.  Crush, following the phrase “ooze of oil” connotes Jesus’ sacrifice to mankind: allowing himself to be “crushed” at crucifixion for our unified salvation and redemption. This biblical association is reliant upon the oil’s representation of Jesus’ body. This word bears a heavy, stressed inflection in accordance with this brutal image. Hopkins emphasises the rhetorical question “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” by employing an abundance of stressed units. This is an example of Hopkins signature “strung rhythm”, which relies on what each word represents in determining whether or not to apply stressed or unstressed syllables. Hopkins uses archaic language in this question: “reck” signifies heed, while the rod symbolises God’s omnipotence. Therefore, he asks the question: why doesn’t mankind heed the divine authority of God? He goes on to provide examples of the ways in which mankind renounce God’s unconditional love and eschew his very presence.

According to Hopkins, Mankind’s renunciation of God is well-rooted and reaffirmed by generations upon generations; this lack of veneration for their Creator has become part of our society’s complexion. Hopkins indicates that we starve our spirits by refusing to nourish and fortify our connection with God. Instead, we are driven by the exigencies of trade and commerce and corrupted by our blind idolization of money and power. Hopkins employs verbs with negative connotations to convey this blasphemous pursuit of wealth and prioritization of industry: “seared”, “bleared”, “smeared” and “smudge.” Each of these words works collectively to create the impression of a stain or blemish, which is representative of transgression, industrialisation and its defilement of the beautiful. He summons up the image of dirt uprooted by our constant, indefatigable search for oil and valuable natural resources. Our labour is repetitive and spiritually unfulfilling; Hopkins describes it as “toil”, a word devoid of pleasurable associations.

Hopkins personifies the earth in the line: “And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” Our smudge connotes our corruption and our smell evokes the stench of the brutish labourer’s perspiration: sweat spent in the evacuation of the earth’s natural, synthetic merchandise. Hopkins reiterates man’s severed connection with the earth through use of the word “shod”; where once man roamed barefoot, modern generations are impervious to the mystical vibrations of the soil, as well as the tactile sensation of being grounded. Hopkins employs a synecdoche through his qualification of foot to represent mankind as a whole unit. The concept of being “shod” summons up negative connotations of constraint, shackling and the deceptive appearance of surface “cleanliness”, despite the inner stains of rapaciousness and greed. Hopkins equates the “bareness” of the soil with the figurative denudation of the human spirit. While the soil is barren and unproductive as a result of our ravenous gleaning, he suggests that the soul undergoes a similar process of husking from lack of spiritual nourishment and loving stewardship. One significant difference is that while the soil has the capacity to renew and refortify itself after a time of extreme deprivation, our souls are incapable of this self-same revival.

As Hopkins so eloquently puts it, the earth is “never spent”, despite our repetitive, marauding activities. Deep down within the soil lies the “dearest freshness”, an impenetrable, productive mantle, immune to the man’s attempts at harvesting and replete with the most wholesome of nutrients. Hopkins names this the site of renewal, where God’s richest and most cherished natural commodities are reborn. This site is the root of the soil’s immortality. While “possessable” entities like the clothes on one’s back can be spent and sold off, certain creations, such as the soil, cannot be owned and therefore cannot be spent or depleted. It appears that our destruction of the earth’s surface heals over like a scab, but the destruction we cause ourselves in the process is not as easily wiped away.

The final sestet of the Italian sonnet poses an argumentative about-turn, where Hopkins relishes in the earth’s capacity for renewal and the unconditional love of Our Creator, who continues to love mankind despite their transgressions. The cycle of day and night testifies to nature’s pre-determined powers of rejuvenation.  In this context, Hopkins’ reference to the west summons up the image of sunset in a vivid example of metonymy. He personifies morning as he depicts it leaping up and running through the sky; morning metaphorically denotes hope and uproots doubt through its shedding of light and promotion of clarity. The final image conjures up the Holy Ghost as he “broods” over the world and serves in the role of a protective, loving sentinel. Hopkins compares God to a vigilant mother hen, sheltering her nest of colourful potential, awaiting the moment to release His children from their blissful incubation.

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