Imagery and symbolism in God's Grandeur

There is some interesting and tightly packed imagery in the poem.


From Hopkins' own writing, the image of ‘shook foil' seems to have been the one that fascinated him most. Most of us use tinsel at Christmas, and have noted how it catches the light as it moves. Hopkins uses this as a simile here, in connection with the metaphor of the world being ‘charged', in the way in which now a car battery may be ‘charged-up'. Here, if you like, the world is so full of God's electricity, that it will spark (‘flame out') on contact. We can see how Hopkins thinks in images here: a simile is used to describe a metaphor further.


The ‘ooze of oil' refers to when some oil-bearing product, such as an olive, is crushed. This seems almost a contradictory image: a mere touch will produce a spark; then a wholesome crushing is needed to get oil just to ooze out.

Investigating God's Grandeur
  • Can you see a way of resolving this contradiction?
    • Has it something to do with human experience?

Night and day

The other dramatic imagery clusters in the centre of the sestet, contrasting night and day. ‘The last light off the black West' dramatises symbolically a hopeless situation. In Hopkins' later ‘Terrible Sonnets', such imagery becomes frequent. But it is countermanded by the ‘brown brink eastward' of dawn and hope: an obvious, but effective juxtaposition.

Holy Spirit / dove

Dove, photo by Dick Daniels, available through Creative CommonsThe last line contains the imagery we have discussed of the Holy Spirit. Here the Spirit is seen maternally, a brooding bird with ‘warm breast': a bold image to make concrete what would otherwise be a very abstract idea.

As readers, we have come a long way in fourteen lines from dramatic electrical imagery to quiet, feminine, nurturing imagery. We need to understand this is the landscape of Hopkins' own spirituality.

Investigating God's Grandeur
  • What is the force of ‘broods'?
  • Who is ‘bent'?
    • And in what sense?
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