Updated: Nov 15, 2021
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.
In this poem, the persona is adulating the incredible power of God. He compares the glory of the Lord to an electric charge present in all things- a fulminant power uncontainable and endlessly great. However, the persona questions the actions of mankind in their insatiable search for self-gain and exploitation of the natural world. He wonders why mankind does not heed the warning of and defer to the immense power of the Lord, but rather leaves a permanent deleterious mark on the surrounding world. Even in this questioning of the deplorable acts of humanity against the world, he realizes that the ever-present innate freshness in all things continues to live on. Nature is never completely depleted by humanity's ruthless exploitation of it. Even though the sun sets on one day, the sun rises yet again for the triumphant beginning of another, simply because the Holy Ghost, like a mother bird tending to her young, nurtures it without fail.
You may notice that this poem is similar to Sonnet Composed upon Westminister Bridge, September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth. They both speak about the wonder and beauty of nature. (And they are both Italian Sonnets)
The theme of this poem is a sort of glorification of God- that is, Hopkins intends to adulate the grandeur of God and his unshakeable infusion in nature. The theme also incorporates man vs nature or man's destruction of nature. The tone is reverent overall, but shifts between disgust and hope at some points.
"The world is charged with the grandeur of God."
The persona here states that the world is 'charged' with God's grandeur. The use of the word 'charged' here relates God's grandeur specifically to electricity, which is well-known to give things electrical charges. The comparison of electromotive force with God's grandeur implies that everything is inherently imbued with it, as though filled with electricity. It is possible that the poet intends to indicate how just like how electric power drives machinery and circuits, the world is powered by the glory of the Lord. The word charged could have a second additional meaning intended by the poet. Charge can also mean to entrust someone with a responsibility- so it could be interpreted in the context to mean that not only has the world been infused with this electrical potential energy, but the world has also been entrusted with the responsibility of the grandeur of God, in terms of ensuring that the glory of God is upheld and lauded.
"It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;"
The poet continues with an extended metaphor comparing God's grandeur to electricity here. He goes on to state that the charge imbued by the grandeur of God will fulminate to such an intensity that it flames out in a flashing like the reflection from the multiple facets of a sheet of foil when shook. This vivid visual imagery gives the reader the impression of a surge of awe-inspiring intense light.
This line also incorporates the use of an alliteration with "shining... shook." This gives a texture to the language used here, alluding to the sound of foil when shaken.
"It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil"
The grandeur of God is now given a oil-like quality, gathering 'to a greatness.' The simile used here compares the presence of God to how the true essence and greatness of the seed of a fruit is only realized when crushed for its oil/essence.
"Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?"
This line continues from the last line, where the phrase was broken except for the last word to give the impression of urgency and an abrupt pause using a single syllable to remind the remind the reader of the stark and puzzling nature of the question about to be asked.
The persona now questions why mankind does not 'reck his rod.' The word reck is an archaic verb meaning to mind or pay heed to something. Think of the word 'reckless,' which basically means without minding/heeding warning or being careful. Coupled with the use of the word 'rod,' somewhat of a metonym for God and his authority, we can understand this line to be a question of why humanity does not defer to the divine authority of God. Given that the grandeur of God is so omnipresent and inherent within the word, he ponders why humanity would debase the natural world rather than heeding to God's unshakeable power (his rod).
Two alliterations are also used here, with the repetition of the 'n' sound in "now not" and the 'r' sound in "reck his rod." This monosyllabic language again conveys the stark and grave nature of this question.
"Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;"
This line serves to show how over years of humanity's dominion, they have trampled constantly over the earth. The poet utilizes the literary device of repetition to give the impression of interminability, incessance and perpetuality (a bunch of fancy words for endlessness). This shows how generations of humans have walked upon the earth with blatant disregard for God's authority. Not only does it convey this concept, but it also acts as an effective connector between lines 4 and 6, the former questioning why man ignores God's grandeur, and the latter presenting the deleterious effects of man's obsession with commerce and self-gain. Hence, this line gives a time period for the line it precedes.
"And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;"
This line shows how the profit-centered, industrialist behaviour of mankind has so terribly affected and despoiled nature. The poet uses internal rhyme here, repeating that '-eared' syllable throughout the line. The earth and nature have been sullied by the selfish toil of humanity.
"And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."
Here, the persona continues with a tone of disgust in remarking how all of the world now has been smudged and stained by mankind. It suggests that mankind cannot help but leave their own stench and damage the natural world with industry and economic pursuits.
The soil, the persona says, is now devoid of natural life- but humanity is even incapable of feeling this connection to the earth due to their feet being covered by shoes.
"And for all this, nature is never spent;"
This could be considered the volta or turning point of the poem. The persona states that despite the constant destruction of nature by humanity in their egotistic pursuits, nature itself is never depleted completely or 'spent.' Despite humanity's ceaseless attempts to undermine nature and tarnish it, it will not be destroyed- it always replenishes itself.
There is an alliteration used here, with "nature is never."
"There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;"
The persona continues with this tone of hope, by saying that the 'dearest freshness' lives on deep within all things. This shows that even though nature is trampled upon in humanity's labouring for self-gain, this dear freshness- a reinvigorating, refreshing and inspiriting influence- remains inherent within nature. This completely opposite influence to humanity Hopkins relates as an innate spiritual energy that excites all things.
There is another alliteration here with "deep down" things.
"And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —"
The persona here continues to highlight the replenishing quality of nature. He notes that even though the sun fades into darkness, setting in the west upon the completion of one day, morning springs forward again as the sun rises in the east for the beginning of another day. He lauds this constant cycle of regeneration that happens irrespective of humanity's actions, showing his confidence in the longevity and infinite regenerative ability of nature.
"Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."
The persona now compares the Holy Ghost to a bird brooding and nurturing her egg. Thus, the Holy Ghost is a bird-like protector who guards this 'bent world' in its protective care.
Check out this in depth analysis from Adam Webb!