Gerard Manley Hopkins had a passion for the natural world. As an inheritor of the romantic tradition of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, he learned from an early age to love the arts — he thought he would be a painter, but ended up as a poet and priest. Thanks to his cultured parents his life was awash with music, painting, sketching, and poetry, and he likewise was taught to look outside for inspiration and encouragement in his artistic endeavors.
Central to this desire to see the world in a new light was the close tie of his artistic endeavors to his faith. After his conversion to Catholicism, Hopkins threw himself into his theological studies, neglecting his verse for almost a decade. His commitment to Jesuit discipline no doubt hindered his artistic pursuits, but Hopkins’ greater Catholic tradition is far from gnostic. Augustine, for example, held a strong belief in the inherent beauty and “grandeur” of God in the natural, ordered world. It is no surprise then, that when Hopkins once again took up his pen, his work became infused with weighty theological themes. One such work is “God’s Grandeur”.
A Poem About Glory
“God’s Grandeur” is a poem that is primarily about glory. The central idea of the work is in the first line: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (1). Hopkins’ meaning is simple, but its implications profound. The world — all of it, every created thing, the whole natural order — is filled and full, saturated and suffused, with the beauty, brilliance, majesty and glory of God. Right from the start, Hopkins aims to inform the reader of a huge theological truth: all the beauty in the created world comes from God. Everything is charged with God’s glory and beauty, chock full and ready to burst out like a bolt of electric current. As a Jesuit, the motto that Hopkins committed to follow in his lifetime was “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam”, Latin for “For the Greater Glory of God”. It makes sense that he would hold to a high view of the glory of God in all things. He loved nature deeply, and what better way to be “for the greater glory of God’ than to attribute every beauty of the created world back to God?
This works because a distinctly Christian view of beauty places the full weight of artistic ingenuity squarely on the shoulders of God. If God is the instigator and creator of all things in the world, that means that he himself is the most beautiful, and the standard of all beauty. Beauty does not control God, and God does not accidentally create beautiful things. God can’t help but create beautiful things, he does it precisely because he is beautiful. He is the continual fountainhead of aesthetically pleasing matter, not just the first drop in the bucket. The world is a beautiful and oftentimes glorious place to live and experience, but only because God continually keeps it filled to the brim with reflections of his beauty and his grandeur.
The unique thing about Hopkin’s poem, which is a miniature treatise in itself on the infinite presence of God, is that is distinctly trinitarian. Hopkins makes sure to make his Godward aesthetics focused on all three persons of God. Hopkins’ idea of “grandeur” is a substantial one, not simply because he appeals to the grandiosity of a deity, but because he hints at the pervasiveness of Trinitarian unity in all things. In other words, the world is not just filled with God’s grandeur in a sweeping, big-picture kind of way, but in a hands on, down-to-earth kind of way. It is one thing to acknowledge that God is the creator and instigator of everything, but it is quite another to say that he lives and breathes in the natural world, like an electrical current always surging in the background, bringing light and life to all things.
This is what Hopkins seems to be saying. A distinction must be made, however, between Hopkins’ Catholic theology of beauty and a distinctly Protestant view of aesthetics. I am not an expert on the topic (for a quick and helpful primer, see the article referenced below), but the language can be confusing. If Hopkins is saying that “God is in everything” than he is not necessarily wrong — just unhelpful. This can lead to a kind of sacramental theology where God’s presence literally pervades all material things. In other words, if God is there in these beautiful objects, then we can rightly worship him through worshiping them. This is not scriptural, since we find in Scripture a God who manifests himself not evenly in all of creation, but uniquely both in the incarnation of Christ and in the indwelling of the Spirit in believers. We do not worship the creation, but only the creator. The beauty of the natural world serves not as a conduit to God, as if by taking it in we are taking in God himself, but rather as a reflection of God. Instead of implying that “God is in everything”, it might be more helpful to say “God is seen in everything”. This follows Biblical boundaries, for the statement by the Psalmist that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1) is not a trivial one. If we can rightly acknowledge God’s grandeur, than we can likewise rightly acknowledge that the grandeurs of his created world declare his glory alone, not some worship-worthy glory that has been bestowed upon it. In contrast, the incarnate Son and the indwelling Spirit are both not images or pictures of God’s glory, like the natural world, but are rather God himself, and worthy of our worship.
The glory of God in Hopkins’ poem is primarily shown by images of the Holy Spirit, which makes perfect sense, since the Spirit is the person of the Godhead who interacts most personally with the believer. The Holy Spirit is also the member of the Godhead who is addressed by name in the poem, as “Holy Ghost” in line 13. This Holy Ghost hovers constantly over the world, warm and inviting, like a dove with “bright wings”. This image gives us the picture of a Spirit who invades the hearts of Christians by comforting them and wrapping them up with bright wings into a warm embrace. The Spirit is also accounted for in the beginning of the poem — the power of the flames of Pentecost refract in the lives of the Church in the same way that crumpled metal foil mirrors the light of the sun when it shines on it. Likewise, the oozing oil is the oil of the Spirit’s anointing, used in Catholic liturgy in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and holy orders.
The Father is present in the poem, because it is his rod, his rule, that men must “reck”, or acknowledge and reckon with (4). “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter (rod) of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness” says the Psalmist (Ps 45:6). He is the kingly ruler and sovereign ruler, it is his dignified and noble glory that truly encapsulates the word “grandeur”.
The Son is also seen clearly in Hopkins’ verse. The “dearest freshness” (10), besides pointing to the work of the Holy Spirit in deeply indwelling all things, also implies a sense of monetary worth — something bought and paid for, like a dear and precious good. The world is this precious good, and it’s future redemption from its fallen state was bought with a high price by God, namely the price of his only Son. Christ is the costly ransom that secures the “dearest freshness.” The picture of the “black West” (11) may also be an allusion to the darkness that enveloped the earth at the crucifixion of Christ (Matthew 27:45). After crucifixion, the Christian sees resurrection – the sunrise springing up in the east, overtaking the darkness left at the black sunset. This is Easter morning: a rising sun (and son) that “springs” (12) forth on the horizon.
The most striking image is the “oil / crushed” (3-4). This could easily be a reference to olive oil, produced by pressing or ‘crushing’ olives. Earlier versions of the poem actually show that Hopkins originally wrote ‘pressed,’ before changing it to ‘crushed’ for effect. If, as previously considered, the “oil” is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, then in order for the oil to “ooze” out it must first be crushed. In this sense, Christ is what must be crushed in order that the Spirit might ooze out. Christ, on the cross, was “crushed for our iniquities” (Is 53:5). He is the “olive” that is pressed so Christians might receive the ooze of oil which is the Spirit of God. Jesus himself said to his disciples “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (Jn 16:7), and in the same way, without the crushing of Christ, the world could not be as Hopkins describes it: “charged” with the Holy Spirit.
Will You “Reck His Rod”?
Hopkin’s does not fill his poem about God’s glory with Trinitarian imagery on accident. The theme and the title of the poem is “God’s Grandeur”, but the point of the poem is to prove that despite the fact that generation after generation of sinful men have refused to acknowledge the work of God, “for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;” (9-10). No matter the sinful obstinate of God’s greatest creation, God remains sovereignly in control. His beauty will never be spent, his mercy will never run dry, and his authority will never be usurped. His glory, his “grandeur”, lasts forever.
It’s exactly because Hopkins’ appeals to Trinitarian unity that he can make such a claim about the pervasiveness of God’s glory. Think about it: if God the Father was alone, forever one and acting solo, then it really could not be said that he “charges” all things. He might have a hand in all things, but he would still seem a little cold, distant, and aloof. Creative, yes, but not present. But God is not only one, he is three. He did not only create the natural world, but Jesus Christ (who is fully God) entered into the natural world via the incarnation. And if that is not enough, he does not become incarnate, leave, and cease to inhabit the world. He continues to live and breathe in the world by the work of the Holy Spirit indwelling believers — the invisible person of God who is continually working the will of the Father and the Son. The Trinitarian God forges the universe, the Father sends the Son to feel the universe, and then both send the Spirit to fill the universe. This trinitarian interaction would not have been foreign to Hopkins, because it is the doctrine of “filioque”, affirmed in gusto by the Roman Catholic Church.
The triune God is the God who is most uniquely present. He is unified in purpose and present in being, that is what makes him beautiful and worth worshipping. Hopkins is right: if God’s grandeur is everywhere, how could men not see it?
Hopkin’s trinitarian theology can be a balm to the broken, a weapon for joy for the depressed, and a helpful warning to the overly busy. If there’s anything that “God’s Grandeur” shows, it is the need for the gospel. We need the gospel of Christ, to tell us that God is beautiful and glorious, and we should pay attention. We need it to tell us that he entered into the fray with us, to do the work for us. The gospel of grace is the only message that will help us to stop and see and enjoy the beauty of the triune God in all things, and to stop trodding all over his creation and taking his grace for granted. Seeing and believing that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” helps the broken trust that God is not done working, the depressed believe that joy is always available, and the busy understand that the way to true rest is not by accomplishment but by acknowledgement.
God’s mark is everywhere, and in all things. He is the sovereign Father, the understanding Son, and the indwelling Spirit. Whether you acknowledge him or not, his beauty will not fade or fail. There is certainly some freshness of God available to all mankind — the rustle of the leaves, the shining sun, the awe-inspiring mountain-scape — but the true freshness is reserved for those who acknowledge and submit to the grandeur of God, all of those who repent and believe in Christ. Only those who are in Christ will receive the freshness of the Holy Spirit, a comfort who can fill them to the brim and never leave. To put it another way: The Kingdom of God is not like this world, it is far more beautiful. You can see glimpses of it from the outside, but to enter into the glory and grandeur of the Kingdom, you must bow before the King. Once you repent and submit, he will give you the greatest freshness of all — himself. The question that remains for all who feel the pull of God’s presence in the world is simple: ‘Why do men then now not reck his rod?”
Elizabeth Villeponteaux, “Flashing Foil and Oozing Oil: Trinitarian Images in the First Quatrain of ‘God’s Grandeur'”, Victorian Poetry, 40.2 (2002), 201-207.
Gertrude M. White, “Hopkins’ ‘God’s Grandeur’: A Poetic Statement of Christian Doctrine”, ibid., 4.4 (1966), 284-287.
Robert Boyle, “Hopkins’ Imagery: The Thread for the Maze”, Thought: Fordham University Quarterly, 35.1 (1960), 57-90.
For more on Hopkins’ life and works, see my post here. For more on the theology of Trinitarian Aesthetics, check out this concise and helpful essay by one of my pastors, Samuel Parkison.