Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Shook Foil in the Dust

The season of Lent begins at an interesting time, starting near the end of February, when winter is still hanging on and spring feels far away. At certain times, a hint of spring seems to come through (like when it actually rains instead of snows) but most of the time, winter seems to be far too present. It's easy, as we approach Ash Wednesday from the tail end of a cold winter, to "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." But Lent carries with it the promise of Easter, and with it of springtime and new life. That sort of weariness and hope is reflected in the poem, "God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889, Hopkins was a Catholic Priest as well as a great poet. I don't know if this poem was written for or during Lent.)

The 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.

In my mind, it is not the message but the use of language that make this poem so brilliant and memorable. From the very beginning, the metaphors are both visual and physical: the world is "charged with the grandeur of God," as if it's about to discharge in a giant spark. And in fact, in the next line that discharge is promised, "like shining from shook foil." That image combines so many senses: the light shining of the foil is inextricably linked to the sound of the foil shaking. Combining this idea of light or a spark flaring out with a flame gives an impression of light of every form, but not particularly comforting. In fact, it's interesting that the grandeur of God is so unfriendly, so harsh and overwhelming. In line 4: "It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil, / Crushed." God is not represented by a lamb, or a cloud, but by oil oozing. And what does it mean to suggest that oil is both oozing and crushed? Somehow, the grandeur Hopkins is seeking to describe transcends the experience of the senses that he tries to describe it with.

The second part of the first stanza of the poem brings back the ideas of weariness, and of returning to dust. The repetition of "have trod, have trod, have trod" certainly brings to mind the sound of feet treading onward through its relentless repeated monosyllabicity. And everything is described as "seared," "bleared," "smeared" - dirt, grime, and weariness seem to rein, and man cannot even feel the soil (the dust to which he shall return) because he is removed from it by his shoes. The rhyme and rhythm of this stanza reinforce that immense sense of weariness. The sense of repetition and futility that is underscored by the repeated sounds and the monosyllabic words with hard, flinty consonants, like "trod," "seared," and "shod."

Hopkins offers hope, though, through the final stanza. Even as the season of Lent begins, Easter is visible at the end of it. "Nature is never spent," and spring will come again. He seems awed by this prospect, and the interjection of "ah!" in the middle of the line expresses the sheer joy with which he greets the return of "freshness" and goodness. Breaking up the form of the poem with such an interjection draws attention to the line, and to the interjection and to the phrase that follows it, "bright wings." Unlike the grandeur of God in the beginning, that is harsh and bright, the Holy Ghost is portrayed as a mother bird "brooding," who seems safe and comforting. In the final use of "bright" to describe his wings, however, Hopkins reminds us of the light and brightness that "flamed out" in the beginning of the poem. The world cannot be held in dust and weariness, but neither can it simply be comforted by nature. Instead, Hopkins ties together the poem with the harsh yet brilliant brightness of the grandeur of God that overwhelms the world as it comes out of darkness and out of the dust.

1 comment:

Asymptotesend said...

I don't usually read poetry having studied music all my life, and I don't remember why I got hooked on this poem probably 25 years ago now. I liked it so much, I actually memorized it! Recently, I remembered that I liked the poem, but, alas, could not even remember the poet's name. So Google saved the day and I immediately found your post. Thank you for walking through that poem in the way you did. It was exactly what I needed at this point in time for someone to share their understanding and feeling for Hopkins' poem. Twenty-five years later, it seems even better!