Thursday, March 15, 2012

Poem of the Week 3/15/2012: God's Grandeur

God's Grandeur

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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

* "All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him." The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins
** ll. 3, "oil." Crushed from olives. An early version read: 'like an oozing oil / pressed."
*** "Reck" means to pay heed to, to attend to.
* ll. 13-14. See Genesis 1:2 and Milton, Paradise Lost, i. 19-22. GMH also observed the manner in which the sea 'warped to the round of the world' in his journals.

Genesis 1:2, KJV - "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

Paradise Lost, 1. 16-26:
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

One thing I find absolutely remarkable about this poem is the manner in which Hopkins blends the humble lyric with the Biblical and epic traditions - he brings a vast theology into earth, neither sacrificing the symbol of the dove, the olive, the Holy Ghost, or the genesis of all things, nor the humble things of the world in his poem - shook foil, a feathery wing, an olive.

It's fairly clear that the poem proceeds in three parts - the first two in the first stanza, and the last in the last.

To open, Hopkins clearly likens God to an electric charge - god is in everything, like some kind of static if only we reach out, that charge could enter us, give us a Zap. I suppose this is, in a way, radical, at least to blunt conceptions of God as other from this earth, an absolute being unknowable and who, perhaps, lives in heaven. This God, instead, is a force, the electricity shining from a beast's fur (Rilke), the static in your sock (there's a poem about this... whose name escapes me), the heat lightning in the distance, a shock, a shock, any shock!

About this holy fire, Hopkins offers both a prediction, "it will flame out," and a condition for it, as the glory of God, "Gathers to greatness." We can feel the energy in these statements, in their directness, their prophetic voice, and in the complex construction of the first three lines. They are each two pieces, in a way; the first line contains an internal slant rhyme between "charged" and "God," offering the drum beat, as well, of the D and G sounds that mark these first three lines. Lines 2-4, then, start the poem's beat with consonant-heavy, pounding, rhyming couplet, each split into two.

Hopkins does not let us rest, however; he stops us abruptly with the enjambment from "ooze of oil / Crushed," and then the question composed of single syllable words, "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" (ll. 4). This line taps out a new subject for the poem and announcing its next section - what has gone wrong, and why people aren't constantly struck by this grandeur. Moreover, the ambiguity of the antecedent for "his," it could be God or man, raise the question of whose self or piece of self really allows access to the divine. Does man have the rod - and we are abandoning ourselves? Is it the lightning rod of the Almighty? Perhaps the ambiguity actually signals that it is both, and the slippage between the antecedents is truly the best way of encapsulating the paradox of the touch between man and God - it is neither one nor the other - when this rod is activated, perhaps typical conceptions and sensations of self dissolve, and the categories slip from human to divine, charged with grandeur and glory.

Perhaps the following lines, however, make the case that this rod ought more properly be divine, since the world, when smeared with man, and smelling of him, prevents the holy from shining through us, "like shook foil."Indeed, perhaps modernity - the shoe, economy, getting and spending (wordsworth) - now protects us from these shocks, so that we no longer feel that cosmic electricity, of an energy but half our own... Hopkins, as ever, supports his statements with charged language - the repeated sssss sounds hiss with disdain, and the rhymes replace the holy with the fallen - "soil" and "toil" replace the divine metaphor of "oil," and "shod" and "trod" replace, of course, "God."

And yet, Hopkins almost cheerfully adds (perhaps one hallmark of disdain is the freedom it suggests from the thing disdained - it is below one, and the narrator of the poem, then, is above the soil and toil of commerce and materialism...), "for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things" (ll. 9). Despite smears, the world is ever fresh; he expands this idea in a complex metaphor to close the poem. The metaphor is one of the sun coming up over "the brown brink eastward," but this metaphor is far vaster than we might think. God is presented as the Sun, but also as the Holy Ghost leaning over the deep (as the notes say, connoting Genesis and also Milton, bringing the weight of epic poetic memory to the poem, stirring the pots of feeling in hearts using beloved and old works from which the glory of God shines forth). And this ghost is similarly a dove, a natural symbol, an angelic symbol, the dove rescuing Noah from his time asea... Hopkins' image brings rising behind it a chorus of associations from sacred and poetic texts from thousands of years, a chorus of angels rising behind it - his poem thus mirrors the glory of God shining forth as from shook foil, the charge that rests in all things - the freshness and innocence and deep, childlike love for the divine, and the lightningshock of delight one feels upon reading it.

No comments: