Hopkins, Gerard Manley Entries

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.

Library Tuesdays: Pied Beauty

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It's taken me a long time to realize how much trauma and hardship many of my friends have suffered at the hands of standardized tests. In part, this is because of my seemingly native test-taking skills, but more than that, standardized reading tests have actually introduced me to some of my favorite authors. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, given the mind-numbing boredom that is traditionally associated with test-taking and the bland corporate nature of test-creation giant ETS, I have gleaned gem after gem from those reading tests. Starting with my first standardized test in elementary school, via which I discovered Zilpha Keatley Snyder's classic The Egypt Game, hardly a bubble-filling session has passed in which I wasn't struck by some intriguing plot point or turn of phrase, and whenever I could squirrel away enough information to track down the source later on, I would always do my best to find it.

So I'm not all that surprised at my grand discovery from the English Literature GRE:

Glory be to God for dappled things-
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow and plough;
        And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
        With swíft, slów, sweet, sóur, adázzle, dím;
He fathers forth whose beauty is pást change:
                                           Práise hím.

I was given the first stanza as a simple ID, and had no idea who wrote it; I guessed wrong, veering toward the early twentieth century because the language seemed so playful and experimental. I had never heard of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it turns out that he was a Catholic priest living in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and the author of this gorgeous little poem, as well as copious others which he never published or showed to many people due to how "strange" they were, and also due to his wariness about seeking praise when his religion dictated humility. He pioneered the use of "sprung rhythm" in modern poetry, a system of stresses which hearkens back to ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry (this is what all the accents are about). The nexus of ancient and avant-garde is pretty magical to me, and the man's personal history is also strangely compelling.

As a strident agnostic, I am not usually one to jump at a verse whose main goal is to praise God. But the language and the theology here are both so unusual and strikingly beautiful that I just can't help myself. It seems to me a rare day when I find a Christian poem that praises "all things counter, original, spare, strange" rather than encouraging conformity to the One Righteous Path. It seems equally rare to find a nineteenth-century Christian who finds God passionately in the idiosyncrasies of the natural world, rather than in renouncing that world. And it's not the Romantic notion of the epic or the sublime that calls it up, not rushing cataracts or towering ice-capped peaks, but the mottled skin of a trout or a cow, the undulations of ploughed earth, and "whatever is fickle." This deeply-felt, sensually-expressed connection to the unusual and brindled of the earthly world approaches a theology I can get behind.

I love to revisit this poem at times when I need a little bit of grounding, or when I'm taking stock, so I thought it was a good choice for the New Year. One of my goals for the time to come is to give more thanks for, and notice to, the dappled details of earth and language. Happy 2007 to all.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography