It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

book cover

Way back when, in the days before Evening All Afternoon, I wrote about being so struck by the unexpected meter and richly textured language of Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Pied Beauty" while, of all things, taking a standardized test, that I wrote down the first line of the poem on a piece of scrap paper and shoved it into my pocket. My discovery of Hopkins probably still takes my personal prize for most intense aesthetic experience in a testing environment; never mind that I got the answer wrong. Ever since then I've meant to explore his poetry more fully, and the time has finally come...although I must admit that it's coming slowly.

Not that "Pied Beauty" is an uncharacteristic example of his oeuvre. Far from it: if anything, I've been surprised by the extent to which every poem of Hopkins's seems to be utterly representative of the rest of his work. They are nearly all, like "Pied Beauty," deeply attuned to the natural world, and, like "Pied Beauty," almost all those written after 1875 are in Hopkins's characteristic sprung rhythm. (Sprung rhythm differs from normal English-language verse in that it counts total stresses per line rather than total syllables. So technically, you could have as many syllables in a poetic foot as you wanted, as long as only one of them were stressed—a trick beloved of Bob Dylan. You could also potentially have many single-syllable feet in a row.) Almost without exception, Hopkins's word choice is as rich and suggestive as in "Pied Beauty," and his syntax is often much more complex. And, possibly most defining of all, his fervent, sometimes tortured Catholicism is the raison d'être of all but a small handful of these verses.

My slow progress is, I think, down to a combination of the last two qualities: the sheer density and unexpectedness of Hopkins's imagery is a plus, but a challenging plus. The religiosity, I must admit, gives this religious agnostic pause when consumed in larger doses than a poem or two at a time. I can't help but feel this is a personal flaw (a great book can be about anything, after all, and I read plenty of novels by and about Christians), but there you have it. Fantastic imagery, compelling rhythm, lots and lots of Christ and the Christian god.


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 eastwards, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Yes, I chose to pull this poem because of the odd image of God's grandeur "oozing" oilily; there are a few things here that might tie into the disgust project. Before I go there, though, a little diversion into Hopkins's odd placement in time; to me, he almost seems to belong to any era except the late 1800s, when this poem was actually written. The sprung rhythm, although pioneered by Hopkins in modern verse, was something he claimed to have gleaned from old English folk songs and nursery rhymes. This, together with his love of alliteration, archaic word forms ("reck," "trod") and almost kenning-like compound forms (no great example in this poem, but "The Windhover"'s "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" leaps to mind) give his poetry a faux-medieval cast. The oddness and experimentalism of his versification strikes me as Modernist. The way in which he cleaves to the natural world in the face of human corruption ("nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things") strikes me as high Romantic, as does the sheer intensity of his spiritual angst. I suppose the religious piety itself is the only thing about Hopkins that comes off as particularly Victorian, if you don't count the seven years during which he refused to write poetry out of a sense of duty to his priestly order.

It makes that test question very devious, is all I'm saying.

In greater seriousness, what about the grandeur of God massing and oozing like oil? The image communicates well the pervasiveness Hopkins is getting at here—that the entirety of Creation is so super-saturated with God's grandeur that it seeps out of the world like oil from a crushed olive, and masses as it "gathers to a greatness." Like a staining sauce about to drip onto the carpet, or pitch seeping out of a wounded tree. So yes, hard to ignore, certainly. But also kind of gross, don't you think? Maybe "gross" is going too far, but disturbing. There's something disquieting about the idea of any substance "oozing" out of every surface around one, regardless of what that substance is. But come to think of it, there's also something a bit contradictory about even trying to imagine "grandeur" that "oozes." Grandeur as a bright flash "like shining from shook foil," yes: light is usually conceptualized as clean and illuminating, both Godlike qualities. It's hard to be contaminated by light, or even by fire. But oil, especially oil described as "oozing" (as opposed to, say, anointing), strikes me as both dirty and obscuring, more like the "blearing" and "smearing" of trade and toil a few lines later, than like anything grand or numinous.

I mean, personally, I quite like this image of an oozing, oily god. A very tactile, yet slippery god. One of the things that drew me to "Pied Beauty" was Hopkins's celebration of an imperfect, impure-seeming creation:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.

Elsewhere, though—even elsewhere in this poem!—Hopkins seems to hew to the more traditional opposition between "freshness" of the natural world and man's "smudge" and "smell." The Holy Ghost broods with "bright wings," which associate the divine with both nature (birds' wings) and the light that flames out "like shining from shook foil" in the second line. Even in "Pied Beauty," my reading is that Hopkins is able to appreciate the odd and "fickle" because they are backed by the everlasting, uncorrupted being "whose beauty is past change."

So to associate the divine itself with oozing oil caught me off guard. I'm not sure what to do with it, but I quite like it. Maybe it's meant to suggest the dangerous aspect of God; after all, the following line is "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" where "reck" denotes concern or alarm, and the divine "rod" brings to mind that of Aaron (which turns miraculously to a serpent when laid before the Pharoah, then consumes all the rods of the Pharoah's sorcerers). So maybe the contaminating and dangerous elements of an "oozing" substance are reflected in the aspects of God that test and punish. "Crushed," in the Biblical tradition, brings to mind the serpent crushed under Christ's heel, which is echoed by the mention of the rod, and even something "flaming out" with purifying fire could be dangerous. These hints of threat and punishment seem an odd fit for Hopkins's theology, which at first flush appears more of the "Commune with the goodness of Nature and you're communing with the goodness of God" variety, but it's probably more complex than that. After all, the man did write a long poem appreciating the divine powers behind a shipwreck.

So, I continue along my slow way. I'll leave you with Hopkins being slightly more predictable but no less lingually delicious about the degeneration of humanity; I don't need to comment in-depth except that the penultimate line is one of my favorites in Hopkin's catalog thus far.


On ear and ear two noises too old to end
   Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
   With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar;
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
   His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
   In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none's to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
   How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life's pride and cared-for crown,

   Have lost that cheer and charm of earth's past prime;
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
   To man's last dust, drain fast towards man's first slime.


  • What a wonderful account of this mobile, visceral poem! I'm wondering whether it is informed by the turn-of-the-19th-century concept of the sublime - an intermingling of awe and terror. That oozing oil feels uncontrolled and excessive to me, almost menacing, the shook foil blinding. Or else perhaps that first stanza is steeped in god as powerful authority, and then in the second, god as gentle redeemer. It's a fun poem to play with, isn't it? I know so little poetry, it's shocking, really. But I do love crammed, suggestive poems like this one.

    • Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, Litlove. It's interesting that you bring up the sublime vis-a-vis the ooze, because I was just reading another disgust book (Robert Rawdon Wilson's The Hydra's Tale) that suggests that the disgusting has a certain symmetry with the sublime. Just as the sublime is inexpressible in words because above the beautiful, the repulsive is inexpressible in words because below the ugly. An interesting thought.

      Yeah, there is definitely an interesting contrast between the first and second stanzas. It's almost like the distinction is less between God and humans, as between the harsh/dangerous sides of God and humans and the fresh/sensitive sides of both of them.

  • You might enjoy reading Ron Hansen's novel Exiles, which is a fictional account of Hopkins' life.

  • Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the poem. I was taken aback by the ooze of oil because it just doesn't translate to gathering into a greatness for me. Love the "In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour" line in the last poem.

    • Stefanie, "gathers to a greatness" works for me with the oil because it brings to mind the way drops of liquid swell against their own surface tension before falling as drips, but it is an odd juxtaposition of low & high.

      I love the line you mention, too - the mix of internal rhyming and alliteration is kind of breathtaking!

  • Hopkins is my favorite poet -- thank you for this beautiful review.

    Just to add to some of the oil imagery, Gethsemane means "oil-press" (it was a garden near the Mount of Olives) and Hopkins may well have been thinking of the contrast between God's more obvious grandeur (the light and gold of the shook foil) and the less obvious greatness of the pain of the incarnation and crucifixion.

    • You're very welcome, Jenny—glad to encounter some more Hopkins love. :-)

      And fascinating points about the oil. This is just the kind of thing that I miss due to my secular upbringing. Apparently an earlier version of the lines read "oil / Pressed," which only strengthens the suggestion of olives and by extension the Mount of Olives connection. And from representations of the crucifixion, that image of a welling drop (of blood) looks familiar. Thanks for the insight!

  • I love Hopkins! You are inspiring me to reread some of his poetry at some point. I would have a problem with the Christianity as well, mostly because I got ALL I EVER NEED TO HAVE EVER as a kid. Most Christian authors that I studied when younger I'm sick of now, so I guess it speaks highly of my admiration for Hopkins that I can envision rereading him happily!

    • Yay, so happy to remind you of a love for Hopkins! He does amazing things with language, I think.

      As for the religion, I really don't think it would bother me if it weren't literally every single poem. I like to think I'm accustomed to the assumption of Christian worldview in Victorian English lit, but it's not normally the ONLY subject of an author's work. Still, the imagery and lingual tricks are always surprising, even if the subject matter is not.

  • This is the guy from goodreads who was afraid that he was spamming you! And now he's afraid he's spamming your blog!

    But I loved your post and Hopkins so much I decided to stop being shy and post a comment at last.

    • I'm psyched that you commented here, Rooney! I like GoodReads but I secretly love it best when people comment here. :-)

      And you are so not spamming me in either place. I am locked in a never-ending battle with the spam bots, and your comment was a welcome change.

      • Glad and gilded-gold my heart is, that thrilled
        You are by my common commenting! Trills
        It in frills of melodious lilting lyre-voice
        Lining it-- ah, music! spurty spirit of God's joy!


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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
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