Stanzas 1-5: God's dealings with Hopkins

Stanza 1

The poem opens with an address to God rooted in Hopkins' own experience and beliefs. God has ‘mastered' him in the past, in his conversion, and now is mastering him again to write the poem. The term ‘mastery' is a key one for Hopkins. Later, he uses other power terminology, such as ‘head', ‘king', ‘Lord', all applied to God. This is important in his theodicy. Sometimes people question whether God is too weak to prevent such tragedies. Hopkins wants to make it known at once that he does not consider God weak in any sense whatever.

Investigating Stanza 1
  • Look at the term ‘master' in stanzas 10, 19, 21, 28, 32.
    • What associations do you have with the word?
    • Do these seem to be the same as Hopkins'?
    • Or does Hopkins seem to have another view of mastery?
  • What other descriptions of God's power or omnipotence are there in this first verse?
  • ‘World's strand' is a difficult phrase to understand, since there are two quite different meanings for ‘strand'. One is ‘thread', so the phrase could mean,
    ‘God's control threads its way throughout the whole world.' The other is ‘border, shore', so the meaning could be
    ‘God sets the limits of the world,'or
    ‘whichever way you go, you will eventually come to God at the edges.'
  • ‘Sway' obviously suggests movement, as of the tides, but also has the meaning of ‘control', ‘rulership'.

Just as God orders the world, so he does Hopkins: ‘fastened me flesh'. But having made Hopkins, he has almost ‘unmade' him, an autobiographical reference Hopkins goes on to explain in the next stanzas. Now he feels God is ‘touching' him to write again. There is a sense in which Hopkins is paralleling his own life with that of the shipwreck in this ‘unmaking'.

Investigating Stanza 1
  • Which reading of ‘World's strand' do you prefer?
    • Or can you see another meaning?
  • What do you understand by the word ‘dread'?
  • In what sense could God (or the sacred) cause people dread?

Stanza 2

This fills out the autobiographical detail mentioned in the first stanza. Clearly, Hopkins had been through some sort of spiritual crisis which had affected him physically, too. It would seem most obvious to apply this to his own conversion whilst a student at Oxford, but some critics have suggested it is how he was first affected by hearing the news of the shipwreck, and his ‘wrestling' with God to make sense of it.

The language is very powerful. Throughout the poem Hopkins uses dramatic verbs and nouns, not only of the shipwreck, which we would expect, but of God's dealings with humans. Hopkins' theology is a tough, dramatic one.

Investigating Stanza 2
  • Pick out the verbs and nouns of conflict and movement.
    • Are there any unusual ones?
    • What physical sensations did Hopkins have?
  • Would you say Hopkins was a willing convert?
  • ‘midriff' probably means ‘heart' here
  • ‘laced' means ‘held together' as by laces.
  • The term ‘stress' is really important and quite technical. For Hopkins, it is associated with the term instress, and means the way in which God impinges on people's consciousness. God imposes himself on humans, not vice versa, for Hopkins. This is the toughness of his theology, since God will use force if necessary, though he can do it gently, too.
More on God's toughness: Another Christian poet, John Donne, actually asked God once in a poem to be tough with him. ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God!' he wrote. Hopkins doesn't have to ask.
Investigating Stanza 2
  • Look at other uses of ‘stress' in stanzas 5 and 6.

Stanza 3

The next stanza continues the description of Hopkins' fearsome personal encounter with God. Many spiritual experiences can only be told through images, and have to be grasped intuitively. In a sense, Hopkins is trying to create ‘stress' in us as readers, in conveying his own. His awareness of God's anger and of Hell itself may be something way out of his readers' own experience, but the force of Hopkins' expression still conveys something powerful to the imagination.

Investigating Stanza 3
  • Pick out words that seem particularly dramatic to you.
    • What sort of emotions do they convey?

In the end of ‘that spell' (i.e. that time), as in many conversion accounts, Hopkins surrendered to God's power, ‘And fled with a fling of the heart.' Having done that, there is an immediate change of consciousness, not to defeat at all, but to having come home, or having found a safe place. Hence such phrases as ‘you were dovewinged', ‘carrier-witted', referring to homing or carrier pigeons, who can instinctively make their way home wherever they are released. (There may also be an allusion here to the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. See Big ideas: Dove)

There are some technical theological words in the stanza:

  • the ‘Host' refers to the body of Christ, which is at the centre of the Catholic Mass.
  • ‘the flame to the flame' refers to various biblical symbols of fire, the first being hellfire, the second being the fire of spiritual regeneration through the Holy Spirit. For example:
‘...will be in danger of the fire of hell' (Matthew 5:22)


‘They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.' (Acts 2:3-4)
More on the Holy Spirit: Elsewhere, the coming of the Holy Spirit is described in terms of a dove:
‘he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him' (Matthew 3:16) referring to Jesus at his baptism).
  • ‘tower from the grace to the grace' also is technical:
  • the first grace is the dreadful experience itself, since it is God's coming to Hopkins, however unpleasant it felt
  • the second grace is of salvation, or perhaps of calling, since the experience may, too, have had within it the sense of Hopkins' call to be a priest
  • ‘tower' not only has the sense of flying upwards, as the falcon does in The Windhover, but of being in a safe place. Hopkins echoes biblical language here:
‘The Lord is my rock and my fortress ... my high tower' (Psalms 62:2)‘Blessed be the Lord ... my high tower' (Psalms 144:1-2)
Investigating Stanza 3
  • Who is being addressed in this stanza?
  • Why do you think Hopkins repeats ‘where?' in l.3?

Stanza 4

Hopkins describes himself as he feels now, someone who has surrendered to God but still lives with spiritual tensions. He uses two contrasting images, perhaps reflecting the spiritual struggles described by Paul in Romans Chapter 7:
‘So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.' Romans 7:25)

The first image (ll.1-4) is of an hourglass, where the sand seems to be unmoving when you look at the edges, but, in the centre, it is ‘mined with a motion' as it ‘combs to the fall' through the hole.

  • ‘Combs', as in Inversnaid, means the patterns a moving surface makes. The image suggests apparent placidity on the surface, but really there is a downward instability.

The second image (ll.5-8) works upwards. It is of water at the bottom of the well. Water, too, is calm on the surface, but as water is drawn up by means of a rope, so it is replenished by an underground stream that comes down or through a mountain, ‘the voel'. The latter is a Welsh term derived from moel, meaning ‘hill'. (There was actually a hill called ‘Moel' just near St. Beuno's). This symbolises the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, as in Jesus' words:

‘“Whoever believes in me ... streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this, he meant the Spirit.' (John 7:38-39)

This can be tied in with Jesus' conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well:

‘Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up into eternal life.' (John 4:14)

This is ‘the gospel proffer', ‘Christ's gift'. The stream of water falling down the mountain is like a rope or a vein. The water, seeping into the well, is then roped up as a constant source of renewing spiritual life for the Christian.

Investigating Stanza 4
  • In what ways do the images of sand and water anticipate the account of the shipwreck in Part II?
  • Can you see the play on words, or pun, in the word ‘fast'?
    • Do you see any other plays on words?

Stanza 5

This brings us to the end of Hopkins' personal statement or confession, placing himself where he is right now. For the first time he uses nature images (which came to typify most of his other poetry written whilst at St. Beuno's). Nature is a revelation of God, too, ‘wafting him out of it'. However it is not a revelation he experiences every day, so he has to ‘greet him the days I meet him'. Nor does this revelation always bring understanding - anticipating the difficulty of understanding the meaning of the shipwreck.

  • the key here is the terms ‘instressed, stressed', which we have already noted. God still has to impress on our spirits who he is: revelation doesn't just come automatically by looking at beautiful scenery
  • ‘mystery' in biblical language means some secret which only the initiated can understand, those to whom its meaning has been revealed. Jesus tells his disciples:
    ‘Unto you is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God.' (Mark 4:11)

In the poem, the mystery will become the suffering and disaster.

More on Hopkins' theology: Hopkins' theology is a Romantic one, which tends not to see nature as fallen or full of evil, but rather as good. Thus, storms and hurricanes, being still a manifestation of nature, cannot be held as being intrinsically evil or part of a disordered universe caused by the Fall of humankind. You may be able to see how this could become problematic in his theodicy.
Investigating Stanza 5
  • What have you learned about Hopkins the man over these five stanzas?
  • Contrast the revelation of God in stanza 5 with the revelation of God in earlier stanzas.
    • How is the contrast expressed in the language used?
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