Themes in God's Grandeur

Natural theology

Hopkins' philosophy here is called natural theology: that is, the study of how a Creator might be seen through his Creation. In Hopkins' time, there were huge debates about whether the existence of God could be proved through evidence from nature. Darwin's theory of evolution, which seemed to stress chance and impersonal principles, greatly upset many who thought God could be proved in this way.

Hopkins' own position is reflected over a number of poems, and could be summarised as seeing Nature as God's book. (See Themes and significant ideas for a fuller account.)

  • Hopkins is more concerned with proofs or dialectics than with the sense of presence
  • God has not just made a Creation; he is present in it
  • The whole matter of inscape and instress is about the ability to get an intuition or insight of God in the beauty of his world.

The ugliness of modern life

Unfortunately, the more people spoil the beauty of Creation, the less likelihood there is in catching such insights. The cause of that destruction, Hopkins suggests, is because ‘men then now not reck his rod'. He asks it as a question, but it has the force of a statement:

  • reck means ‘take note of', just as ‘reckless' means taking no care or note.
  • his rod might sound like punishment (as in ‘spare the rod and spoil the child'), but rod can also mean a sceptre, a metonym for sovereignty.
    After all, Psalms 23:4 says:
    ‘thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.'
    which refers to the way in which a shepherd safely guides his flock.

The sense of an all-powerful God can be a great source of hope, especially when things seem to be going all wrong.

So people have lost touch with both God as Creator and his Creation. This is best expressed in the line:

‘the soil Is bare now; nor can foot feel, being shod.'

The earth is meant to be clothed, human feet unclothed (or unshod): the ‘bareness' has been reversed. Once there was intimate contact; now all this is lost. The earth's covering has been scraped off and people have no sense of the ‘touch' of the earth.

Conservation and renewal of nature

The poem's third theme, the conservation and renewal of nature, reflects that God is not out of control of the situation, but renewing nature through the Holy Spirit.

  • Hopkins uses the older form ‘Holy Ghost', which has taken on supernatural overtones. The German word Geist also still maintains both meanings.
  • This idea of the Holy Spirit is often rather problematic to people who aren't Christians, though we use the words ‘spirit' and ‘spirituality' a good deal still.
  • The Bible suggests the Spirit was at work in Creation, as in Genesis 1:2:

    ‘The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters' (AV)

    The word translated ‘moved' here has been variously translated as:

    • ‘was hovering' (NIV)
    • ‘brooding' (Living Bible), which is the very word Hopkins had used some hundred years before that particular translation.

Since, in Christian thought, the Holy Spirit is still active, it makes sense to see the Spirit still at work in creating - or re-creating, as needs be.

Investigating God's Grandeur
  • What words does Hopkins use to suggest human destruction?
  • By contrast, what words does Hopkins use to suggest the Spirit's activity?
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