Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Gerard Manley Hopkins and a Summary of "God's Grandeur"
"God's Grandeur" is a finely crafted sonnet written in 1877, the year Hopkins was ordained as a Jesuit priest. It explores the relationship between God and the world of nature and how the divine is infused in things and refreshes despite the efforts of humans to ruin the whole show.
With the industrial and commercial revolutions gathering pace in Britain and the West, unprecedented pressures were being placed on the environment. Hopkins, a sensitive and observant poet above all else, expressed his dismay at this free-for-all by writing sonnets of extraordinary texture and depth.
"God's Grandeur" is a tour de force, tight-knit yet organic in rhythm and internal rhyme. Hopkins was a fastidious and seriously experimental poet, working his lines metrically again and again to achieve the desired effect.
"God's Grandeur": Line-by-Line Analysis
Lines 1 - 4
The title word grandeur, from the French, means greatness, grandness, and it occurs in the opening ten syllable line, the speaker declaring that the world is electrified by this impressive divinely given impulse.
Hopkins, always a finely tuned poet in his choice of words, deliberately uses charged to bring an instant surge of positive energy into the reader's mind. Images of lightning flashes across a skyscape, of sparks being created, of invisible oomph coursing through everything, everywhere.
Note the mild alliteration too—world/with and grandeur/God—in a line that is end stopped for emphasis.
The second line now consolidates this opening statement by introducing yet more vivid imagery, enhancing the idea of electricity, power, heat and force. But, Hopkins being Hopkins, he takes the reader deep into the image with brilliant specific detail. This is no ordinary flame but one that resembles foil when it is shaken.
Hopkins himself wrote in a letter:
'I mean foil in its sense of leaf or tinsel, and no other word whatever will give the effect I want. Shaken gold-foil gives off broad glares like sheet lightning and also, and this is true of nothing else, owing to its zigzag dints and crossings and network of small many cornered facets, a sort of fork lightning too.'
Spondee and iamb, together with a caesura (pause midway along the line, because of the comma), contribute to the altered rhythm. Assonance and alliteration are again in evidence—shining/shook and shook/foil, adding to the texture.
Line three continues with a second example. Not only is there a flame bursting out, but there is also a gathering, a liquified magnificence, as when say fruits or vegetables are crushed for their oil.
This is a twelve-syllable line, to take in the spread of the oil, extending the beat which is counterpoint to the set iambic tradition. The sounds stretch and roll around the mouth and not only that, enjambment takes the reader into the fourth line, where the single word Crushed is suddenly end-stopped.
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This abrupt punctuation causes the reader to brake before entering the sonnet's mini turn in the form of the one and only question, concerning the attitude of man towards God. Single syllables are stark reminders of this puzzling situation - man ignores the awesome energy of God.
The term reck his rod means to not take care of, or not pay heed to, (reckless) God's instrument of power, something like a lightning rod.
Lines 5 - 8
The next four lines are in some ways an answer to the question. Men (humans) pay no attention to God's grandeur because they've become creatures of commerce and destruction.
Line five is most unusual. Full of iambs, it repeats the have trod to reinforce the idea of mankind treading all over the earth, ruining it as they go about their business.
Line six continues the theme of nature being despoiled by the behaviour of humans. Note the three words seared/bleared/smeared, all negative, reflecting the damage done through industry and the race for profit.
The obvious interconnectedness of internal rhyme, the mixed rhythm at odds with the regular iambic beat, create an ebb and flow that disrupts, leaving the reader uncertain as to where the next line will take them.
Line seven reinforces line six—anaphora is used, repeated use of words (And)—humans cannot help but stain and mark out their territories, iambic beats returning, alliteration very strong smudge/shares/smell/soil as enjambment once again continues the sense into line eight.
Line eight reaffirms that once industrialised humans have got their hold on nature, not much good can come out of the earth. The soil is bare and the many feet that have trammeled have no feeling left - they're shod, like horses are shod.
So, the speaker has given the reader a clear picture of the world. God's great positive energy flows throughout, energising, invigorating, whilst humankind is busy polluting and undermining.
Lines 9 - 14
The sestet brings a different approach, a conclusion to what has gone before in the octave. Despite all of humankind's efforts to ruin the natural world, nature through God, resists and refreshes itself.
Line nine is perhaps the most straightforward in the whole sonnet—no matter what man throws at nature, it is never completely smashed; it comes back, it always returns. Ten syllables, iambs, no messing. Note that Hopkins alliterates again—nature/never. He can't help it.
Line ten is perhaps one of the most well-known. It contains the mysterious yet intriguing dearest freshness deep down things an alliterative phrase that is a delight to read and complex to ponder on.
Invisible to the naked eye, this dearest freshness is a spiritual energy that today gets the ecologists, religionists and environmental people excited—it is present in all things and especially apparent when each new day dawns, as lines eleven and twelve suggest.
Line twelve with spondees and astute use of punctuation is poised beautifully.
As the sun rises, the speaker acknowledges the presence of the Christian Holy Ghost, the active force of God, without flesh or known body, the third member of the Godhead.
Lines thirteen and fourteen detail this final image, that of a bird-like entity protecting and warming the nest (and nestlings) that is the earth.
The last line is typical Hopkins—alliteration world/with/warm/wings and broods/breast/bright providing a wealth of sound carried on varied sprung rhythm. Earth's renewal is guaranteed and no amount of smudge and smell can thwart this mystical process.
Rhyme, Literary and Poetic Devices
"God's Grandeur" is an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, being split into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines). The octave and sestet are end rhymed and the rhyme scheme is: abbaabba cdcdcd.
Traditionally the octave is a proposal or introduction, of an argument or idea, and the sestet then becomes the development of, or conclusion to, the octave. This shift in sense is known as the turn or volta (in Italian).
- Hopkins sticks to these traditions of rhyme and form, but where he differs is in his choice of language, subject and metre.
Sonnets are usually all about love and romance and relationships between people, lovers and so forth. God's Grandeur focuses on the handiwork of God, the natural phenomena he inherently resides within, and the contrasting negative influences of man.
As you read through, make a mental note of words like charged and flame out, related to electricity and the element of fire respectively. What about shining from shook foil and ooze of oil/Crushed—both short and long vowels used to enhance the image of brilliance and smoothness, whilst the consonants echo.
The contrast between positive and negative language is stark. Just consider reck/trod/seared/bleared/smeared/toil/smudge/smell/bare . . . in the octave, reflecting man's destructive influence on the world.
Then take charged/grandeur/flame out/ greatness/never spent/dearest freshness/with warm breast/bright wings . . . from both octave and sestet, implying that God and nature work well together.
Hopkins is well known for experimenting with his metrical systems. He preferred to mix things up and not stick to the regular daDUM x5 beat of the iambic pentameter.
"God's Grandeur" is packed with deviations, such as the spondaic shook foil of line 3 and Crushed.Why of line 4.
Note the 12 syllables of line three, adding two to the usual ten syllables per line to reflect the effect of the oil.
An unusual repeated iambic beat occurs in line 5 where have trod, have trod, have trod enhances the idea of many feet plodding.
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP,2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey