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Gods Grandeur

As a Jesuit priest who had converted to Catholicism in the summer of 1866, Gerard Manley Hopkinss mind was no doubt saturated with the Bible (Bergonzi 34). Although in “Gods Grandeur” Hopkins does not use any specific quotations from the Bible, he does employ images that evoke a variety of biblical verses and scenes, all of which lend meaning to his poem. Hopkins “creates a powerful form of typological allusion by abstracting the essence–the defining conceit, idea, or structure–from individual scriptural types” (Landow, “Typological” 1).

Through its biblical imagery, the poem manages to conjure up, at various points, images of the Creation, the Fall, Christs Agony and Crucifixion, mans continuing sinfulness and rebellion, and the continuing presence and quiet work of the Holy Spirit. These images combine to assure the reader that although the world may look bleak, man may yet hope, because God, through the sacrifice of Christ and the descent of His Holy Spirit, has overcome the world. The opening line of “Gods Grandeur” is reminiscent both of the Creation story and of some verses from the Book of Wisdom.

The word “charged” leads one to think of a spark or light, and so thoughts of the Creation, which began with a spark of light, are not far off: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Gen. 1. 3). Yet this “charge” was not a one time occurrence; “[t]he world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins 1). Or, in the words of Wisdom 1:7, “The spirit of the Lord fills the world” (Boyle 25).

This line of the poem also sounds like Wisdom 17:20: “For the whole world shone with brilliant light . ” Nor does the similarity end with the first part of this biblical verse. The author of Wisdom proceeds to tell us that the light “continued its works without interruption; Over [the Egyptians] alone was spread oppressive night . . . yet they were to themselves more burdensome than the darkness” (Wisd. 17. 20-21). Here lies the essence of Hopkinss poem. In lines five through eight, he will show us the “oppressive night” that men bring upon themselves in their disregard for God and His creation.

But he will also show us, in the final sestet of his poem, that the light will nonetheless continue to shine “without interruption. ” God will not cease working in the world. Indeed, His grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil” (Hopkins 2). The word “flame” is often associated with Gods grandeur. In Daniel 7:9, the prophet describes Gods throne as being like “the fiery flame. ” In Revelation, “the Son of God . . . hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire” (Rev. 2. 18).

In Exodus, God appears “unto [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exod. 2; Boyle 31). After promising Samsons parents a son, the angel of the Lord “ascended in the flame of the altar” (Judges 13. 20). It is possible, too, that this flame is meant to recall the “cloven tongues like as of fire” that appeared above men on the day of Pentecost, when Gods grandeur was shown through the descent of His Holy Spirit and in the speaking of tongues (Acts 2. 1-4; Boyle 27-28). The second half of this image is primarily a scientific one. It refers to gold leaf foil as used to measure electrical charges in Faradays famous experiment (Boyle 26).

But there is also a biblical significance. Proverbs 4:18 tells us that “the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day. ” Just as light is reflected from gold foil, flashing out in multiplying rays, so too does the Light of God, which leads men, continue to increase. This image in one way ties into lines three and four of Hopkinss poem, in which Gods grandeur “gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed. ” Both images demonstrate a process of increase in Gods grandeur.

Gethsemane “means the place of the olive-press” (Landow, “Typological” 6; Boyle 32). It was there that Gods grandeur “gather[ed] to a greatness,” for it was there that Christ wrestled with doubt and fear and, gathering His strength, finally made an irrevocable choice to glorify His Father: “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22. 42). The olive, in itself, is not particularly valuable. It can be eaten, but until it is pressed, it has no further use.

Once pressed into oil, however, it was used in biblical times for cooking (1 Kings 17. -13), lighting lamps (Exod. 27. 20), anointing (Ps. 23. 5), binding wounds (Luke 10. 34), and in perfume (Luke 8. 46). It was very valuable, and the promised land was referred to as, among other things, a “land of oil olive” (Deut. 8. 8). This, then, is an apt metaphor for Gods grandeur as revealed through Jesus Christ. Had Christ chosen, at that point of agony in the garden, not to submit to the crucifixion, His entire life up to that point would have been (like the uncrushed olive) of little value.

His teachings and His miracles would probably have been forgotten in time, and man would still have no adequate atonement for sin. But just as the olive is crushed to reveal something costly and useful, so too did Christ chose to be crushed to bring forth His priceless blood, which saves men (Landow, “Typological” 6). Accepting this role was no easy matter for Christ. Robert Boyle sees the “main point of the [olive oil] image [as being] that something hidden, beautiful, and wonderfully powerful is revealed” (31). But an at least equally important point is how that hidden something is revealed.

Boyle believes the olive oil image refers not to “the gathering of ooze from the cracks of a press” but rather to gentle kneading with a hand: “the beauty and power is hidden within the olive and can be brought out without a press at all, e. g. , by the pressure of the fingers or palms” (32). This seems unlikely, however, given that at Gethsemane, Christ was not lightly pressed as if in a palm, but was rather weighed down and crushed with great agony, sweating “as it were great drops of blood” and begging that, if at all possible, His cup be taken from Him (Luke 22. -44; Boyle 32). Furthermore, it was at the oil-press that Christ, in order to purchase “beauty and life,” chose to submit to an even greater “crushing”: the beams of the bark that would grind Him down as He bore His cross up the hill of Calvary, the pain that would come from being nailed through His hands and feet, and the slow suffocation that would precede His death (Landow, “Typological” 6).

George P. Landow acknowledges the significance of Christs suffering. He describes one of Hopkinss “basic and generating conceit”: . higher beauty and higher victory can come forth only when something . . . is subject to greater pressure and crushed or bruised . . . true beauty, true life, true victory can only be achieved, as Christ has shown, by being bruised and crushed. (“Allusion” 1). This conceit, Landow explains, is based upon the type of Genesis 3:15, which says: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel.

Christ is the one who bruises Satans head, defeating the adversary through His own bruising, His crucifixion. To the casual reader, this image of the “ooze of oil / Crushed” may seem unnecessarily crude. It contrasts sharply with the brilliant metaphor of flame and shining. As Virginia Ellis writes, the image of “[s]haken goldfoil,” once properly understood, “vividly suggest[s] both the breadth and the sudden flashing depth of Gods power” (129-30). The word “ooze,” on the other hand, generally possesses a disagreeable connotation.

Yet this contrast must be deliberate. For the Incarnation is, after all, a very crude thing. An omnipotent, omniscient God chose to come down from the heavenly realm and take on the form of a mere man, subjecting Himself to the limitations of humanity, in order that He might die a cruel death to save men who were “yet sinners” (Rom. 5. 8). The brilliance of lines one and two of Hopkinss poem contrast with the crudeness of lines three and four to reveal Gods amazing condescension, which is part of His grandeur.

Given this awesome condescension, and given the emotional and physical pain to which Christ subjected Himself, Hopkins cries plaintively, “Why do men then now not reck his rod? ” (4). Most likely, this reference to “rod” will evoke in the readers mind the image from Revelation in which Christ rules men “with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19. 15). But a more appropriate allusion may be found in Isaiah: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (11. 1-2; emphasis added).

The “his” of this line of the poem must grammatically refer to the “God” of line one. Gods rod, then, is Christ Himself. God gave up his rod, His only Son, as a sacrifice for the very men who (we will soon see) fail both to perceive and to honor Him in His creation. “And the very blame which [Hopkins] heaps on man” in lines five through eight of the poem “is witness to his vivid realization that man does not need to be [behaving] as he does, that the Fall has been undone by the Second Adam” (Boyle 37). Indeed, the rod of iron that awaits these men could become for them a rod of comfort.

If they would but trust in Gods Rod, they too, like the psalmist, might say, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Ps. 23. 4). But “[i]nstead of recognizing the authority of Gods majesty and grandeur in nature, as St. Paul says he should,” writes Boyle, “. . . man tramples it in his contempt for and ignorance of his and its Creator” (35-6). This is made clear in line five of the poem: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod.

The image resembles Gods complaint in Ezekiel: “Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pastures? ” (34. 18). It is bad enough that man has disregarded the beauty of Gods creation and failed to see His grandeur in it. But man has done worse than ignore it, he has polluted it with his own sinful nature; he has brought darkness upon himself in the very midst of Gods light. “And all is seared with trade,” writes Hopkins (6). Nothing has escaped mans materialistic touch.

Men, consumed by their own interests, have forgotten Jamess warning: Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is you life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. (Jas. 4. 13-14) This image of all being seared with trade conjures up a picture of the symbolic wicked city of Babylon, where men trade in “gold, and silver, and precious stones . . . horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men” (Rev. 18. 12-13).

Men have put their trust in the produce of their own hands, caring nothing for the soul. Indeed, they have chosen the beast over God, and have perhaps been seared not just with trade, but in order to trade, for “no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Rev. 13. 17). Yet all of mans monotonous, materialistic striving will come to nothing: “And . . . as many as trade by sea, stood afar off . . . weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships . . . for in one hour is she made desolate” (Rev. 17-19).

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