This poem has a fresh, breathy sound to it, like rain in a field of flowers. When we hear "shook foil," thunder cracks in the background. We also hear the echo of big machines, grinding and whirring, driving the dull weight of tired legs against dull dry ground. The sound of "have trod, have trod, have trod," makes us feel exhausted (5). Just like we do after the old nine to five job. Lines 5-8 really echo the sound of working, especially what we might expect in a factory with machines. Not only is this kind of work repetitive and desensitizing, but also it is dangerous, and there is a danger lurking amidst the lines. These lines present a frightening vision of the earth and the people who live on it, under the strain of too much industry.
But then the verse becomes fresh again. We revive to the complicated melody of "dearest freshest deep down things" (10). In the second stanza, the poems skips excitedly – it sounds like a someone jumping rope.
And the final lines smooth into moodiness with the word "brood." "Bright wings" has a tinkling sound like glass wind chimes, softened by feathers.
The title tells us what the poem plans to do: illustrate the speaker’s vision of a quality of God, namely "grandeur." Grandeur is the quality of being "grand," which means "big," "fancy," "wonderful," or "splendid."
The seeming simplicity of the title does suggest that the poet isn’t interested in "selling" the poem, or giving it a snappy title to try to lure people into reading it. Nope. We have a simple statement of the focus of the poem. Enter if you wish.
The physical setting of "God’s Grandeur" is our planet, Earth. Though the poem was written in 1877, the images are easily transferable to today.
In the poem, the earth has a problem. Humans, in their struggle, have been mucking it up, caring more about money than preserving and protecting the planet. In the first stanza we see big factories, smoke stacks, and polluted waters and lands. In short, the first few lines present us with a barely inhabitable planet.
But then the poem moves underground, and shows us nature in hiding, full of potential, waiting to show its face again on the earth’s surface.
After that the setting is all sky – sunrise, sunset, the cloudlike image of the Holy Ghost as a dove, hovering over the planet.
Our speaker is anonymous and genderless, and talks like no one else. He or she seems to be in deep turmoil. On the one hand, the speaker is conflicted over how the world could be so "bent" and broken, suffering under the strains of industry, when it is a place intimately connected to God. On the other hand, the speaker is sure that God is a benevolent force, suffering under the strain of the poor choices humans have made. If you think that it seems like the speaker isn’t sure where God stops and God’s creations begin, you aren’t alone. Hopkins was criticized for not representing more of a separation between the earth and God.
The speaker also seems pretty isolated from other people, especially in lines 4-8. In lines 7-8, the speaker verges on misanthropy. (A misanthrope is person who has lost trust in other humans, and who instead takes the role of harsh judge.) Of course, since any misanthrope is also a human, such judgments are also turned inward. We can assume the speaker is very hard on him or herself. The speaker is very frustrated, and doesn’t understand why the people can’t see the world they way he or she sees it. According to the speaker, the world should be viewed as something lovely, and as a connection to God.
In the second stanza the speaker becomes a seducer, tempting any reader or listener with a stunning vision of the natural world, and then a reassurance that all is not lost.
Because of the anonymous nature of the speaker, we can use our imaginations. We can play around with gender all we want, and the poem is only slightly impacted. Perhaps the speaker is a woman, who blames men for the world’s problems. Maybe it’s a young man, riding through a desolate city. Or a person sitting on a blanket at Woodstock. Or a subsistence farmer. Or someone at an environmental rally or protest.
Language is used in exciting and unusual ways in "God’s Grandeur." Even a quick read will leave most readers refreshed and opened by the freshness of the verse. Almost every word contains multiple meanings all of which contribute to the complexity of the poem. Since many of these words are rather obscure, this poem might take a little extra work with a dictionary. Hopkins experimented radically with language. In this poem, we see how he stretches, bends, and reforms language to suit his own purposes. So don’t be intimidated at first. A few reads, and a little thinking will make "God’s Grandeur" a fun poem to get to know.
You can’t real talk about Hopkins without talking about "sprung rhythm," the name Hopkins gives to the rhythm he uses in his poetry. Instead of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, Hopkins grouped stressed syllables together. This could create a rush, such as we experience in the line "brown brink eastward, springs," or a crisp stopping sensation, such as we get from the line "nor can foot feel" (12, 8). Keep in mind that these are just a few examples. For more on sprung rhythm, you can read this article, called "Gerard Manley Hopkins: Sprung rhythm is the most natural of things."
God’s Grandeur follows the basic form of an Italian sonnet. An Italian sonnet has fourteen lines, eight in the first section (called the "octave"), and six lines in the second section (called the "sestet"). Traditionally the octave and the sestet are not separated into separate stanza’s like here. Hopkins’ division emphasizes the contrast between the first and second stanza.
The poem does follow the rhyme scheme of the tradition Italian sonnet, that is ABBAABBA and then CDCDCD. In the first stanza, the first, fourth, fifth and eighth lines rhyme with each other, and the second, third, sixth and seventh lines rhyme with each other. In the second stanza, the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth lines rhyme with each other, and the tenth, twelfth, and fourteenth lines rhyme with each other.
That’s just the surface of Hopkins’s rhyme scheme. There is rhyming going on inside the poem too. End rhymes "God," "rod" and "shod" also rhyme with the repeated "trod" of line five. You could analyze this complex relationship for a unique paper. How might this relate the painful internal rhyme of "seared" bleared" and "smeared" of line six?
Other than the third line (which has twelve syllables), each line has ten syllables. Yet, its meter is not what is often found in iambic pentameter. (In iambic pentameter a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable or vice-versa.) Instead, Hopkins uses what he calls "sprung rhythm," his big claim to fame. (See "Calling Card" for more.)
In sprung rhythm, this relationship between stressed and unstressed syllables have more complicated relationships. For Hopkins, this means that whether or not a syllable is stressed or unstressed is guided by the desire to express the distinctive "whatness" (as Hopkins called it) of each thing.
"Shining from shook foil" is a great example. The syllables we stress naturally when speaking are in bold. This rhythm surprises us, even after repeated readings, in the way it makes us use our breath, and in the way it speeds us up or slows us down.
The result of this fusion of tradition and innovation is an ordered disorder. Gerard Manley Hopkins uses the traditional sonnet as a playground for his experiment, where hope and despair often combine in a single word or image, and everything seems both incredibly mysterious, but also surprisingly clear.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The first stanza of the poem can be a bit of a downer. Luckily, the problems seem to lie of the surface of the earth, and the surface of the people who live on it.
English poet Alexander Pope said, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." Our speaker might not quite agree precisely with Pope, but he is still a fairly hopeful person. Hope is found in the passage of time, (i.e., the sun continuing to rise in the east every morning), and in the belief of a divine force with which we can interact positively.
Hopkins probably wrote the poem in the late 1800s. Industrialization was going strong, but was nothing like what we see today. Like American poet, Walt Whitman, a favorite of his, Hopkins placed great hope in the natural world. As is probably obvious, this poem thinks that the needs of industry and the needs of nature (and people) are at odds.
If there is sex in this poem, it isn’t obvious. In fact, sex doesn’t seem to enter the picture at all in “God’s Grandeur.”
But wait, maybe it does.
In the biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life, author Robert Bernard Martin argues that Hopkins often uses sexual metaphors to talk about his religious feelings. In Julia F. Saville's book, A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Saville argues (as you might have guessed from the title) that Hopkins’s poetry contains homoerotic aspects.
How does that relate to this poem? Well, one could imagine that phrases like "man’s smudge" and "man’s smell" might have something to do with sex. What do you think?