"The world," according to the poem’s speaker, is energized with God’s energy and beauty.
Sort of the way the batteries for our cell phones and computers and music playing devices are charged with electricity.
(Sorry, physics students: The speaker doesn’t say how much charge the world has.)
Duty is another implication of the word "charged" and a strong one in this poem. It implies a caretaker, or protector, or even guardian role. The world is responsible for taking care of this force of nature.
When we hear the word "charged," we might also think of "charged with a crime," or "charged money." These meanings don’t necessarily work well in this context, but still lend something to the mood of the poem.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
Line two is a fairly complicated simile. The speaker is saying that the charged world is temporary. One day the lights will go out, similar to the way the light appears and then goes out of "foil" when you shake it.
Hopkins says that the image of "shook foil" was inspired by "tinsel," metal "leaf," and "sheet lightening," and "fork lightening." (Letter to Robert Bridges)
"Foil" can also mean "sword," and since swords also have a metallic surface, it fits. This imagery meshes with the sense of battle or struggle that permeates much of the poem.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.
This simile is a little hard to wrap the mind around. As in line two, the first clause is abstract (greatness is an abstract idea), and the second clause provides a concrete image (oil is something concrete, something we can picture).
As a result, the meaning of the line is both concrete and abstract – we can see what the speaker is talking about, but we still grasp for a precise meaning that seems to be out of reach.
We picture (abstractly) all the energy in the word rising to a great and fabulous peak.
Then, naturally, this great gush will fall, collapse, or flatten out, "crushed" by gravity.
The simile is both beautiful and terrible.
This idea actually applies to our own lives in two ways. We smell the oil released from plants and other natural elements when they are "crushed" to make perfumes or soaps or incense.
But we also feel the world becoming "crushed" as we take too much oil from it, without replacing what we’ve taken.
"Crushed" is one of our favorite words in this poem.
Notice how there is no punctuation at the end of line three. This causes us to simultaneously pause and rush forward to the next line.
Kind of like what happens when we are walking on the beach toward the raging surf. We want to rush in, but must pause, even if just for a moment, before we take the plunge.
When we hit the word "Crushed," we are in the raging surf of the poem.
Set off by itself, rather majestically, with its capital "C," the word both looks back on the line that comes before it, and forward to the poem’s big question (which we will get to in a moment).
"Crushed" also signals a turn in the poem from "the world" to the people who live in the world.
Like the simile it is a part of, "crushed" becomes both beautiful and terrible.
It sounds so lovely and full of energy, but suggests an absence of fullness and richness. It suggests that something has been flattened out, that something significant has been lost.
Interestingly, the word "crushed" could also refer to the speaker’s state of mind.
As we see in the next few lines, the speaker feels "crushed," by what he or she sees as people’s betrayal of the earth, and of God.
Why do men then now not reck his rod?
When we arrive at this line we see the poem is talking about "men."
Up until the 20th century, the word "man" meant "people," both men and women. Of course, it also still meant male people as different from female people. In looking back on pre-20th century literature, it’s often hard to tell which sense of "man" or "men" was meant.
We will assume Hopkins meant "people."
This statement seems to be an open question to the universe, and a criticism of mankind.
The speaker reasons that since the natural world is fueled with God’s force, and we are here to take care of it, and since we only get one chance to do it, "why" don’t we "reck" or fear God’s anger?
In other words, why don’t we take better care of the world around us?
An examination of the word "reck" takes this interpretation even deeper.
The word is similar in mood to the sense of the word "charged," meaning given a duty to care for, to worry about, or to be responsible for.
"Reck" is almost always used with negatives such as the word "not," (which we see here), or none, nor, and such.
It is similar to the word "reckon," which means "to talk about," "to notice," "to be aware of."
"Reck" also carries that more electrical sense of "charged," as in full of energy, of importance – think reckless.
Why are we so reckless? We don’t we take care of "his rod"? (We’ll get to "rod" in just a moment.)
Because we are much more familiar with the homonym "wreck" – we might also think of shipwrecks or car crashes, deepening the idea of "reck."
Now for "rod," another interesting word.
"Rod" makes us uneasy because it often signifies punishment and/or discipline. (We’ve all heard that unfortunate "spare the rod, spoil the child line.")
It also means walking stick, a fishing pole, a fast car (when paired with the word "hot").
A lightening rod is metal pole that can contain lightening. This connects us to the image of "shook foil" in line two, and makes us feel like we are dodging lightening bolts.
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
This line is a depressing. The repetition of "trod" (meaning walked heavily) makes the human journey through history sound desperate, and dull, and tiresome.
It sometimes seems that way to us, too.
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
It gets worse, or seems to anyway. The speaker is no fan of "trade" or commerce and industry.
According to the speaker, trade pollutes everything.
Interestingly, the speaker only describes the surface of the world as being in a sorry state. If something is "charred," it’s burned all the way through to the core. If something is "seared," only the surface is burned.
The world is in a sad state of affairs, but it’s not necessarily fatal.
Bleared is similar to "blurred." It’s how something looks, not how it necessarily is. For example, it’s common for people to be "bleary-eyed" when they first wake up in the morning, but eventually they get their bearings and everything looks normal again.
The idea is that if the "toil" (the work of industry) stops, "the smear[s]" will go away.
If only the surface of the earth is calloused, and harmed, maybe the same is true of the people who have done the damage.
The possibility of redemption makes even this angry, bleak line seem a bit more hopeful.
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell:
The speaker is serious, and doesn’t seem to like people very much.
The meaning of this line is that we have interfered too much with nature – we have stained it, but again, only on the surface. It "wears" our "smudge" like an unwanted outfit.
People stink, the speaker says, and we’ve rubbed our stink off on the planet.
It’s not that humans inherently smell bad. Rather the point here is that too much of anything can become damaging. Even the sweetest perfume is stinky, if we use too much.
We need to point out here that the speaker of the poem seems to view him/herself as separate from the human race. Our speaker is alienated from fellow humans by this passionate disgust of the state of the world.
the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
This stanza ends on a miserable note.
Nothing is growing in the dirt anymore.
We live in a wasteland, alienated from that which we are supposed to treasure.
We can’t even walk without shoes. We have lost the connection with nature, and our senses are dulled as a result.
Sounds pretty hopeless. Like we’ve screwed up and made all the wrong choices.