Creation and Christology
The Grandeur of God in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” These iconic words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889), summarize well the deepest expressions of his poetry. Namely, through the created universe, man can have an intimate experience of God, who is the Author of Creation. This experience becomes more profound with the Incarnation, because Christ takes on flesh, created human nature, to become man, and in this way, he reveals the true nature of man himself. Through Christ, we are able to come to a deeper understanding of reality and of God. In looking at select poems, we will see that Hopkins believes that we can see the action of Christ in the created world, and thereby come to deeper knowledge and love of God.
Hopkins’s original desire was to become a painter, and he continued to sketch throughout his life, influenced by the work of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. He studied at Balliol College, Oxford, which is where he eventually converted to Catholicism through the guidance of another great Oxford convert, John Henry Newman. After his conversion, which caused estrangement from his family, Hopkins discerned the call to be a Jesuit, and decided to sacrifice his poetry, because he felt that it prevented him from giving himself completely to religion. He would eventually take up poetry again after seven years of silence, when he realized that the two calls did not need to conflict. In a reflection that Hopkins wrote on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, we find in prose the theology behind Hopkins’s poetry: “God’s utterance of Himself in Himself is God the Word, outside Himself is this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God. Therefore its end, its purpose, its purport, its meaning, is God, and its life or work to name and praise Him.” The world is God’s utterance of himself; through the world, we come to know God, and we can acknowledge the reality that we are meant to praise him through all things. The world itself is a word, spoken through the utterance of God, which Hopkins translates into his poetic words, expressing the beauty and diversity of creation. Let us, then, investigate several of these poems to see how Hopkins allowed the Word of God to influence the words of his writings.
The first of these poems is “God’s Grandeur.” “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” we read, “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Creation is filled with the glory of God, and the diversity of creation fills the earth, like the millions of colors of light that shine from the movement of foil. Hopkins, however, laments the damage that man has done to creation: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge, and share’s man’s smell.” This world, with the diversity of its creation, is far from the freshness of the Garden of Eden: after many generations of sin, man has polluted the world with his smell and his touch—it is as St. Paul describes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now” (Romans 8:22, RSV-CE). All of creation is groaning for the hope of a Savior and the promise of redemption; in Hopkins’s poem, however, all is not lost: “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.” With the light of morning comes hope, “because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” In another poem, entitled “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme,” Hopkins once again reveals in his unique style the reality that Christ’s glory is hidden in the world, this time hidden in the essence or identity of each thing. As Hopkins writes, “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: deals out that being indoors each one dwells; selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.” While this phrasing may be difficult to understand at first, what Hopkins is saying is that each thing reveals its God-given identity. Each thing is its own self, and its existence cries out that identity. But, Hopkins continues,
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The man who is just reveals the image of God in the world—he is Christ in the world, because man is made in the image and likeness of God. “For Christ plays in ten thousand places”—this means that Christ’s image is scattered throughout the world, in the just and good men (Ephesians 2:8-10), because he is acting as God would have him act. He is the presence of Christ in the world, and Christ is acting through him (Galatians 2:20).
The final poem we shall consider is called “Pied Beauty.” This poem is a litany of creation, a litany of praise to God for the many things that he has given to man—reminiscent of the litany of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3). It begins, “Glory be to God for dappled things, for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow.” Hopkins thanks God for the diversity of his creation, in which his presence shines forth. Even those things that manifest the work of man, “Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; and áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.” God’s presence exists in these things as well, for they are (philosophically speaking) his secondary causes in the world. The poem ends with the following: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: praise him.” The beauty of God is “past change,” meaning that it is eternal, although it is expressed in diverse ways in creation, which are passable and changing. Our only proper response to the beauty that God has given the world is praise.
The message of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry is simple, yet difficult to convey through prose alone; one ought to sit with his poetry for hours, for days, for an entire life to allow the words to sink into one’s soul, so that they can become a prayer of thanksgiving. In a world that does not value the act of contemplation, the act of sitting in silence, the act of wondering at the created world, the message of Hopkins’s poetry could not be timelier. Let this brief introduction to only a few of Hopkins’s poems inspire us to reflect more deeply on the image of God present in the world, and how we ought to “praise Him” for all the gifts he has lavished upon us (Ephesians 1:7-8).