God’s Grandeur

FoilThe 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.

(God’s Grandeur – Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877)

I love this little poem; not simply because of its beautiful composition, but because of its balanced expression of the simultaneous beauty and brokenness of the world. It resonates with my experience as I look at a city like ours at a point in history like this, but also with the kind of picture I see expressed in the Bible. Let me explain:

The first line ends with a full stop. There’s no question about it; in the poet’s mind this is a fact: The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It’s unclear whether the ‘will’ of line two is intended to speak of the distant future (it will, one day) or a commonly occurring phenomenon (on any given day, it will) but I think it’s more likely the latter. There are moments when we look at creation and it’s as if the grandeur of God has gathered to one place, like the shifting of oil in a pan, and springs out at us; overwhelming and inescapable.

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, man fails to move from awe to repentance. The dazzling beauty of creation, which should make us marvel and wonder at God’s brilliance, instead gets trampled under foot. Man fails to heed the warnings of God and continually defiles His work. Man is reckless: He recks not the rod of the Almighty.

Lines 4-8 are hauntingly onomatopoeic and conjure up a picture of creation stamped upon; smeared with and stained by the taint of man. The words ‘toil’ and ‘trade’ pull us in opposite directions. ‘Toil’ draws our minds back to the curse of Genesis 3:17, but I think ‘trade’ brings us right up to date; the toil of the first man has, by our day, become a structured, all-encompassing behemoth. Resources are torn from the earth and sold to the highest bidder. Manley Hopkins, writing just after the industrial revolution, was all-too aware of the rate at which technology was advancing, and how man was mining the earth profusely. I think these lines express the poet’s central concern: How do we understand a world that is both glory-charged and man-marred? And what hope is there for creation, when man – who was intended to care of and cultivate it – is increasingly being the cause of its destruction?

This question is a very current and pressing one. We hear more talk now than Hopkins would have done in his day, about the potential of the Earth’s resources running out. Such a question can best be understood, according to the poet, if we encapsulate it within a teleology (a philosophical account of causality and design in creation) like that which we find in the Christian Scriptures: The cosmos had a purpose (lines 1-3) and it has a future (lines 9-14), and both are tied to the glory of God.

This poem doesn’t end with bleak resignation to a wearing-out world. The poet has a deeper confidence in ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’ and he brings the poem full circle back to Genesis imagery. The Holy Ghost still broods over the world as he did over the waters at creation. There is a still-creating presence of God, and the hope that He will do again what He did at the first: create a brand new world.

This reminds me, perhaps unsurprisingly, of Romans 8. Creation is bound to futility, yet is still charged with the grandeur of God. It cries out for redemption just as man, to whom its fate is tied, cries out for redemption. And right at the heart of both this poem and Romans 8 we find the Spirit, who aids us in our weakness and groans for new creation.

The Spirit is depicted, finally, as a dove with warm breast signifying life and the offer of comfort; and bright wings, indicating that he is glorious in flight, ever-approaching and offering, as the Psalmist says, shelter under his wings (Psalm 17:7; 57:1 etc.)

It’s a brilliantly balanced piece; refusing to over-glorify nature to the point where we fail to recognise its fallen faults, nor retreat into pessimism or fatalism about the state of this world at the hands of man. Ultimately the poet’s – and the Christian’s – hope is not in creation itself, and certainly not in our ability to rescue creation, but the glory of God with which this world is charged, and with which it will one day be fully filled (Hab 2:14).

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