Men, consumed by their own interests: 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”
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). Men, laboring to amass useless wealth, have become “[b]leared, smeared with toil” (Hopkins 6). This, argues Boyle, should not be taken merely as an indictment of industrialism: The situation reaches far more deeply into the nature of man . . . After the Fall man . . . has to tread the world and to sweat .
But Hopkins emphasis is on the “all” of “all is seared with trade.” And his complaint is that the soil is not cleared here and there, but it is bare. He is not here condemning man for the Fall, but for what he adds to the Fall from his own personal malice and rebellion against God . . . (36) This image of bare soil pertains not just to mans destruction of nature, but to his spiritual bareness. In Christs parable of the sower, we learn that: A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it . And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and chocked it. (Luke 8.5-7) Nature is the vehicle of this metaphor, but mans spirit is the tenor. The soil is bare just as mans soul is bare; he has borne no spiritual fruit.
Either he has rejected Gods good news, as if trampling it beneath his feet, or he has at first received it gladly, but then been “chocked with the cares and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8.14). Not only is the soil “bare now,” but “nor can foot feel, being shod” (Hopkins 7-8). Again we are reminded of the scene of the burning bush, in which God tells Moses: “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3.5; Boyle 31; Ellis 131). We see man “profaning with shod feet what should be holy ground, not bare soil” (Boyle 31). In the Bible, to be barefoot is to feel. In Mosess case, the feeling is reverence. In the case of those defeated by war and lead away barefoot, the feeling is shame (Isa. 20.2-4). And in the case of David ascending the Mount of Olivet to seek Gods guidance during the rebellion of Absalom, the feeling is sorrow: “And David . . . wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot” (2 Samuel 15.30).
But in Hopkinss poem, the men are shod, symbolizing the fact that they have become calloused, incapable of spiritual feeling. If men are to be shod with anything, they should be “shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6.15). The picture painted in lines five through eight of “Gods Grandeur” leaves little apparent hope for man. But we have been forewarned in the first three lines of the poem that Gods light has not been eclipsed by mans darkness, and that His grandeur will yet “flame out.” Hopkins does not abandon this promise, but resumes it with full force in the final sestet of his poem. “And for all this,” he avows, “nature is never spent”.
The word “nature” may be taken to apply, on three different levels, to physical nature (i.e. rocks, trees, animals, etc.), human nature (i.e. the human race), and divine nature (i.e. God). Physical nature, despite mans misuse of it, has not been spent, but continues to be rejuvenated and to bare witness to its Creator. Indeed, God has promised peace in nature, vowing that “[t]hey shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain”. Likewise, human nature is never spent, “[f]or God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him” men to repentance, helping them to become “partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” Man has not be “spent”; he has not been sold to Satan. To the contrary, he has, in fact, been “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6.20). This price, “Christs decent into human flesh,” and His crucifixion, is what makes the “freshness” of line ten of the poem “dearest”. This “freshness” is probably meant to evoke and consequently to defy the finality of the image of the wanton destruction of nature in Wisdom. The word “freshness” is unique, being found nowhere in the Protestant Bible. But in Wisdom, men, “thinking not aright” and believing their lives to be short and mortal, say, “let us . . . use the freshness of creation avidly .
Let no meadow be free from our wantonness. When interpreting the poem on the level of physical nature, we should not underestimate “[t]he anguish that Hopkins. felt because industrial man not only failed to respond to the forms of nature but in fact seemed dedicated to their annihilation” (Bump 159). Hopkins wrote in one of his journals: The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more. Yet, despite the fact that man abuses nature for his transitory pleasure, he does not have the power to destroy it altogether, for there still “lives the dearest freshness deep down things”. The “deep down” things signify not only the rejuvenation of nature, but the rejuvenation of man through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Christs death, while ransoming sinners, also made it possible that the Holy Spirit might be sent into the world. The symbolic dove, whose image we see in lines 13-14, expresses “the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in creatures and above all in the souls of men”. The Spirit dwells within all believers, but It will also continue Its efforts to bring unbelievers to repentance, for God is “not willing that any should perish”. And although Christ was crushed down, emotionally and physically, He rose again, and He will also come again. “Only seemingly,” writes Ellis, “is Gods energy fallen, crushed, debased in this world”.
For, even “though the last lights off the black West went / Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs”. Or, as 2 Samuel 23:4 prophesies, “he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.” Again, the vehicle of the metaphor is nature, and its rejuvenation symbolizes Christs coming into the world. This image of morning springing from darkness also draws our attention to the words of Isaiah: “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily”. And again: I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.
The continuing presence of the Holy Spirit is proof of this promise. God continues to work through the Holy Ghost, who “over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”. The bent (crooked) world has not been abandoned by God; it will be made straight, for it has been conquered by Him, and it is still being protected by Him. The bird imagery of line fourteen is drawn from the baptism of Jesus, when “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him”.
This dove imagery, in turn, is meant to recall Genesis, in which the Holy Spirit apparently broods over the world: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”. The wing imagery possess a variety of positive connotations. Wings are associated in the Bible with Gods healing, with His protection, with the strength that He imparts to man, and with His conquest. This last association, though not the most obvious, is perhaps the most crucial. When God is said to “spread His wings over” a city, it means He has conquered it.
At the end of “Gods Grandeur,” God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, has spread His “bright wings” over the “bent world,” implying that He is not only protecting, healing, and strengthening it, but that, despite the seeming triumph of darkness, He has already conquered the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was crushed like an olive for this very purpose. The world remains charged with the grandeur of God, “in spite of all mankind has done and is doing to pollute and pervert and tread out its radiance”. God, through the constant presence of His Holy Spirit, continues to rejuvenate physical nature as well as the human spirit; both are “being made over anew”. So, however dark and dreary this world may appear (and does appear in lines five through eight of the poem), we must not surrender hope. For as Christ exhorted, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”.