Dearest Freshness: iridescent feeling, urgent syntax

horse chestnut
Horse Chestnuts opening afresh for Easter, London 15.04.17

Yesterday I started reading G.M.Hopkins’ poem, God’s Grandeur, which I’m going to continue today.

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.

 

I’d got to the point of having to  go back and read all the first four lines together;

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?

From a full-on start, I thought by this point, something’s gone wrong! Hopkins’ sees the ‘grandeur of God’ but is troubled by others not recognising ‘his rod’, which I thought  yesterday was power, rule and  ‘rood’ (Christ’s cross, the symbol of that rule for Christians). Suddenly, instead of grandeur Hopkins is seeing very human mess. In the midst of that I have to notice the fifth line, with its weary, deliberate, treading repetition;

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.

I’m not sure if  ‘generations have trod, have trod, have trod’ is about previous generations following God’s rule, (the rhyme with ‘rod’ makes me feel the connection), or simply having got us here, to this point.  Because the line seems also to turn to modern days, to our generation, where ‘all is seared with trade’. ‘Seared’ connects back to ‘flame’.  It’s as if things are going wrong in all directions – I’m thinking the fall; the tendency of things to always go wrong, go off.  But it’s hard to believe I am only only in line 6, only that short distance  from ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God.’  Is Hopkins, am I, having both thoughts, feelings at once?  This is feeling as iridescence, always moving, highly-coloured, always changing. You notice  it and it is almost gone. We’ve moved from the apprehension of the dynamism of spirit to the sear, blear, smear, toil, smudge, smell, soil… of this common day world. By the end of the stanza, those feet that trod for thousands of years and felt the reality of a connection to earth, they feel nothing, ‘being shod.’ You’d think this might be the end of it. You’d have that movement from ‘grandeur’ to ‘smudge and smell’ and think, that’s the end of this poem. Can’t go on from there. And yet – he takes a break, feels something else, picks up his pen and continues:

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.

The verb ‘spent’ picks up a different sort of economy to the blear smear toil world of filthy  trade which seems only to despoil the world. Even as toil is going on and  humans are wrestling coal out of the ground and tilling the earth in painful labour, yet ‘nature is never spent’,  promising us renewal every time we notice it, even in despair.

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 —

The adjective, ‘dearest’,  is so tender, as if even as he notices, re-notices, the freshness Hopkins is comforted, loved by it and able to love in return. It is ‘deep down things’  – urgent syntax this,  rushing to the main point, the under-presence, the centre, where the heart (heart of nature, heart of Hopkins, heart of me) remains fresh.

This thought pauses and gathers strength at the semicolon, more is coming. Hopkins sees the ‘black’ night lighten to a ‘brown’ dawn. wonderfully not golden like the shook foil at the opening – just a minor modulation of (what in other poems we know is his night despair) the dark to less dark.  That will do. The ‘brown brink’ gives way to the powerful verb ‘springs’.

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.

Now the bad feeling, the awful feeling of smear and blear, of the soil, is only in  the tiny moment of the colour ‘brown’ and is freed from it.  Now Hopkins feels, and reports as if it were knowledge (‘because’) the presence of  the ‘Holy Ghost’.

For me, reading from without the Christian tradition, the poem is yet a powerful expression of faith, which I live through as I read. It seems slightly odd to keep referring to ‘Hopkins’ when most of my experience of the poem is my experience.  I borrow his experience, live in it.

…the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

When Hopkins writes of the Holy Ghost, I read something about my experience of love as a power and a possibility and that there is comfort, rest and solace (ah, that warm breast, that hug) and ‘ah! bright wings’.

That exclamation mark! It is as if putting ourselves ( Hopkins and me) in the present, right now, feeling love and hope, being lifted up. He always wants to make experience alive. That leads to all this fast movement through  the crackle of powerful electric joy, the flaming out, to the weird concentration of men on trade and  toil and making mess then back to  nature’s replenishing freshness and even to the rise of spirit… in twelve lines.  Powerful, realistic, live.

 

 

 

 

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