Dave, Carmen, Mary, Jayar and I were all sitting together at a planning meeting last Wednesday, chatting about business and nonsense, when I broke out the Hopkins. (Note: the slang phrase, "broke out the Hopkins," while not yet catalogued, will someday find its way into gansta lyrics; thereafter it will become part of the Webster's lexicon.) In other words, I read a poem out loud. Right there in Panera, a fit environment for a little half-baked artistry, I launched it.
The experiment met with varied results. Dave, sitting behind my left shoulder began facial contortions. Carmen, seated at my right flank, held back the giggles - at first. Jayar began his left-right eyescan, looking a bit like a cornered animal. Mary just grinned at the whole scene. Eventually, contortions bred out-loud guffaws, incited more wideyed puzzlement and shockwaved into opentooth hehees. Nonetheless, they listened. In fact, Jayar secretly told me he liked the poem, and Carmen had me break out the Hopkins on the next morning's show. Dave didn't slam the rhyme-scheme, so I counted the project a success.
Now let me break out the Hopkins for you:
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.
The poem is called "God's Grandeur," and it was written in the latter half of the nineteenth century by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now you can see where the phrase break out the Hopkins comes from.
If you choose to read this poem, please read out-loud. Poetry was meant to be recited: not like lines in the high school play, but with acute awareness of the experience the author captured in a verbal art. Poems are not abstract. They are perhaps the most concrete form of language. They are dense, rich, like double chocolate cheesecake. They are compact and economical, terse. Terseness is partly what makes the difference between poetry and prose.
"God's Grandeur" is a social commentary and a doxology packaged together in a simple sonnet. Read that sentence again: how do you do social commentary and doxology at the same time!? The poet can do what ordinary mortals can hardly conceive. Critiquing industry's overrun of nature, Hopkins captures his experience in sense-charged words like the assonant trio seared, bleared, smeared and the alliterative position of the word smell (emphasized by the consonance with toil, soil and feel).
The octave's similes startle: like shining from shook foil and like the ooze of oil. Compare these sensate descriptions of spent-ness with the two similes in the second stanza: the apocalyptic blackness of (I assume) the post-Industrial West contrasted with the earthy, brown womb of the brooding Holy Spirit revealed in the nascent light of New Creation's coming to its fruition ("The New Earth") -- brown but bright against the fruitless pavement of man's creeping, covering technology. The doxology is plain. God's creation and care cannot be undone by the exhaustion of man's uncreate advances on nature.
We can speculate on the poet's experience. Born in 1844, the same year as The Nottingham project, Hopkins would likely have seen, smelled, and seared his feet on the fruits of England's vanguard technology: bitumen bonded roads. Both nature and history (Roman roads) were tarred. When I was a boy, the sand-shell road in front of my house was paved. No more bicycle donuts, skid contests or relatively safe ramp jumps and wipeouts. Part of my boyhood was forever buried under that asphalt. I have no way of knowing if Hopkins wrote out of similar feelings, but the same general lament can be found in "God's Grandeur."
I have only scratched the surface of this lively artifact, and lest my untrained eye damage, I don't want to try to dig much deeper. I've said enough to make the point that, for me, breaking out the Hopkins is a spiritual, emotional experience. One final observation. My favorite line is line 8: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. For me, the whole poem is thrust here in one pointed statement. Can you feel the force of the irony? We run barefoot in meadows, over knolls and on sandy beaches. We run, not walk, because we enjoy the sensation. We butt in on nature with asphalt, which requires walking shoes, which rob our feet's feeling. How much sense does that make?
I bring this analysis and affection to reading "God's Grandeur," and I share the faith of the poet. So when I break out the Hopkins, I read with as much feeling and as little artifice as I can capture in my soul. Otherwise, poetry is just prose with style -- yesterday's fashion. But this poem captures me today, and it is fit to capture my children's children, who may find their own analogues in it. That's the power of a poem. Poetry is more than rhyme. It is, as my friend and mentor David Miller says (of metaphor), the world in a grain of sand. If sand can chafe or soothe, depending on how it is understood and used, the experience of reading "God's Grandeur" is a barefoot romp on a powderwhite beach. Take off your shoes and join me.