Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Grandeur of God
Hopkins’ shows us how we are meant to see God’s grandeur in creation — with eyes wide open with wonder.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. The opening line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” says it all. It says all we need to know about the world in which we’re living. Every time we see a tree, resplendent in countless shades of green, washed in sunlight, we see the presence of the goodness, truth and beauty of God. Every time we see anything in God’s Creation, shining forth its splendid self like shook foil, to borrow another image from Hopkins’ poem, we are seeing the presence of the Creator himself. All is made in his Image, the fruit of his Divine Imagination, even if we, as rational, loving and creative souls, reflect his Image in a deeper and singularly more personal way than the rest of physical Creation.
Hopkins’ greatest gift to us is the way that he shows us the grandeur of God in Creation, teaching us how we are meant to see, with eyes wide open with wonder. He shows us the difference between the wandering mind and the wondering soul. A mind may wander aimlessly like a cow grazing in a field, its head down, intent only on satisfying its animal appetites, or it may look up and see the glory that surrounds it. Of course, a cow cannot do this, but a man can, and indeed a man must, if he is to see the heavens for which he is created. The animal grazes; the man gazes. This is the difference.
“We are all in the gutter,” says Oscar Wilde, “but some of us are looking at the stars.” When Hopkins looked up, he didn’t just see the stars, he saw the “moth-soft Milky Way” with its “belled fire” ringing forth God’s glory, calling us to prayer and praise. And after the daily resurrection of the dawn, he didn’t just see the sky, he saw the “jay-blue heavens.”
“Again, look overhead,” he urges us. “Nay, but do but stand where you can lift your hands skywards... The glass-blue days are those when every colour glows, Each shape and shadow shows.”
It takes a soul blessed with humility to be able to see as Hopkins sees, with wonder-filled eyes that can contemplate the miracle that surrounds us, for, as Chesterton reminds us, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, but the best of all impossible worlds. We are in the presence of a miracle, of which we are ourselves a miraculous part. “Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes,” writes Chesterton. “Those rolling mirrors made alive in me, terrible crystals more incredible, than all the things they see.”
And yet there are none so blind as those with pride-filled eyes, blinded by their own prejudice. Hopkins also laments such blindness and the stumbling, fumbling way that it desecrates the beauty and majesty of God’s grandeur.
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.
We can no longer see because we have blinded ourselves with the pride that shuts the eyes to wonder. We can no longer feel because we have covered and smothered ourselves with artificial accretions. Nor can foot feel, being shod.… We have sold the real reality, which shines forth God’s grandeur, for 30 pieces of tarnished silver, exchanging it for a tawdry virtually real substitute, distracting ourselves to death with the wasted time that prevents us taking time. We do not see the light of God’s goodness because we prefer the darkness of our self-centered selves.
The escape from such self-enclosed lives is the great gift and blessing of humility, for, in the words of the rock group U2, if we want to kiss the sky we need to learn how to kneel. This is an admonishment to astonishment! We need to learn, with humble hearts, to be astonished by the presence of beauty. For it is only in the presence of beauty that we will see the presence of the Beautiful Mind that brought such things into being.
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.
- gerard manley hopkins