If every poem has a past, then the strands of my own past are laced with lines of the loveliest lyric, forged a century or more ago by Gerard Manley Hopkins, an obscure Jesuit priest whose sonnet, “God’s Grandeur,” I elatedly discovered while a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. His was the opening poem in an assigned anthology that included some of the finest blooms of the nineteenth century. On reading it I felt as if I’d been suddenly struck by lightning and, indeed, the very first line of the poem fell like a flash across the page, leaving me ablaze with gratitude and amazement at the sheer audacity of its imagery:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
I read on excitedly, each successive line exploding like roman candles against a darkened sky:
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.
Here, without a doubt, was poetry of the first intensity. So utterly unlike anything I’d ever seen before that I thought I’d stumbled upon a new language. How did he do it? And then, of course, there was the sheer sweep and vision of the thing. How it lifted the heart with its exultant sense of a world finally resistant to ruin! But how could that be? Because the Holy Ghost hovers above the flux like some immense blessed bird, poised at any moment to swoop down and rescue it from a final fall. God is not seated upon some distant throne, in other words, arrayed in unattainable splendor; his disposition rather is one of descent, of daring to plunge headlong into the maelstrom itself, bent over its brokenness like a good shepherd gathering up all the lambs twisted and torn by sin. Who comes, as Hopkins tells us elsewhere, “with work to do,” and not “to coo.”
Who would not exclaim happily on hearing lines like these? Such lines impart an ultimate certitude that in God alone all hope remains triumphant. These lines manage even to deepen the sense of the psalmist, who, in assuring us that “The whole earth shall be filled with his majesty,” does not extend the insight quite far enough. They do not, in a word, push the envelope of audacity as far as Hopkins would have it go. It is not enough, Hopkins is telling us, to say that the earth is filled with divine presence, as if God were so much water poured into an empty vase. No, the image he is after must be one so charged with divinity, so galvanic with God, that the reader is actually made to feel an energy, a force suffusing the cosmos with such grace that it gives off glints of his glory everywhere and in the midst of everything. That is why the darkness will not finally prevail, because God himself—“the dearest freshness deep down things”—is able to reach right into the very marrow of created reality itself, thus ensuring not only the survival of the light, but the sheer efflorescence of its warmth and beauty.
“All things are charged with love,” writes Hopkins in a commentary on a text from the Spiritual Exercises, in which the founder of the Society of Jesus to which he’d given his life, Saint Ignatius Loyola, exhorts us to see the hand of God in every created thing. If only we knew how to touch so sacred a charge, adds Hopkins, it would at once “give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him.”
Knowing how to trace the movements of God amid the things he has made, and thus to experience an exhilaration comparable to that felt by Hopkins himself, is no easy task in a culture as insensate to beauty and grandeur as our own. When it happens, however, such “inebriating exuberance,” to quote a phrase applied to Hopkins by another poet, Robert Lowell, can work as a kind of contagion in anyone encountering the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins for the first time. The poet Stanley Kunitz, for instance, who, wandering through the Widener Library while a student at Harvard, discovered “God’s Grandeur” among the stacks and could scarcely believe his eyes. “It really shook me,” he recalled in an interview near the end of his life, “because it was unlike anything else I had ever read before.” A whole world came suddenly to life before him, he exclaimed, “filled with such lyric passion. It was so fierce and eloquent, wounded and yet radiant that I knew that it was speaking directly to me and giving me a hint of the kind of poetry that I would be dedicated to for the rest of my life.”
What a long and richly creative life that was, too, including two appointments as Poet Laureate (1974 and 1997), along with a Pulitzer Prize awarded in 1959. (He died in 2006 at the age of one hundred.)
And while this is just about the highest possible praise one poet can pay to another, some of us non-poets are not far behind. The pleasures of his poetry, I am saying, do not diminish with age; there is no statute of limitations on one’s enthusiasm. Every semester, in fact, I endeavor to infect whole classes of my students with the same passion that I continue to experience on reading this wonderfully gifted priest-poet. A sacramentalist, no less, who saw the finger-painting of God splashed about the universe he so delighted in bringing into being.
And, then, finally, there is this to be said of Hopkins, which seems especially telling, as it reveals the singularity of his vision that differentiates him from so many artists and poets who came after. He was, as I said at the start, the first poet whose work adorned the anthology I read as a student. And he was not in the least like the others found between the covers of that book. Hopkins, you see, was a believer, his sensibility shaped by the Catholic Thing. Indeed, his whole life and work were soaked in the Blood of the Lamb. How different, therefore, from the figure of, say, Philip Larkin, whose work appears on the last page, giving voice to the awful darkness and doubt that have come more and more to characterize the modern soul. In his poem “Church Going,” we see him on his way in, poking about the place, but only when he’s “sure there’s nothing going on…” After which he wonders why on earth he took the trouble since “the place was not worth stopping for.”
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into…
Hopkins could certainly have told him. In the meantime, an entire revolution in human thought and sensibility stands between those two very different bookends. Which side is likely to win in the end? I don’t know. But I’m putting my money on “the dearest freshness deep down things.”