Nature’s freshness deep down things

The following poem by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is an example of how natural and theological language can work together to create a powerful expression of the divine in nature:

God’s Grandeur

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.

Human toil and trade have resulted in a barren environment: “the soil is bare now.” We have forgotten (“not recked”) that God charged the world with divine grandeur (“his rod” – his awesome presence). But nature is seemingly renewed each morning, because the Holy Spirit is a steadfast warm presence hovering over the earth like a bird brooding, i.e., incubating, her eggs. God remains intimately engaged with creation. Written in 1877, the poem could be read as a reaction to the worst aspects of the Industrial Age. Seared, smeared, and smudged could well describe the factory workers in William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills.” However, Hopkins felt that nature had the ability to survive the damage inflicted by humanity in the name of progress and economic development: “nature is never spent.” Despite centuries of humanity’s covering the earth with commercial and agricultural activity, nature has displayed an amazing ability to refresh itself. But can we still have the same confidence that sustained him and others who had a deep faith in nature’s resilience?

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