ooze of oil

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89):

God’s Grandeur

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.

It’s a violation of this blog’s purpose to include much commentary on the passages, but I needed to write a prose reflection on this poem by Hopkins today and will include this gushy first draft (any feedback in the next couple of days will help me improve it before delivery):

Hopkins’ title and first line taken together form a simple chiasm (“God’s grandeur … grandeur of God”) with the “charged world” surrounded and throbbing at the center. Charge is an electrical term. It builds up over time. It is carried, potent and evenly dispersed (yet invisible), throughout the object.

Continuing this electrical (or scientific) language with “flame out,” “shining” and “foil,” we nonetheless shift to natural sunlight as the real source of the bright, piercing light. The world is only a mirror. We notice, too, the first introduction of violence as the cause of the brightness. Shook foil, creased and vibrating, reflects the light with almost overwhelming glory. It is the shaking that releases the potential, the built-up and hidden charge within.

This building up of a charge is echoed with “it gathers to a greatness.” Only now, with the “ooze of oil,” we are shifting to more ancient and agricultural images. “Crushed” is strongly emphasized by its solitary placement at the start of a line. It recalls and even intensifies the violence of “shook.”

Now the images come fast, harsh, jumbled, over-lapping, in a growing pile. “Generations that trod, trod, trod” maintains the agricultural picture (of olives or grapes being pressed under feet). It is fruitful and productive as well as wild, even wanton and destructive. This is an image of judgment, reinforced by the term “rod” in the previous line. Now we see the whole world, along with all of human history, as being charged, full of reflective potential, gathered to a pregnant greatness, ripe with oil for the pressing. At the same time, we (the trodders) are in rebellion against His rod. We do not recognize His bright and potent reign, although the world shines it out, drips with it, bleeds with it.

In this pile of negative and positive images, we feel tension. What is God using to shake out his grandeur, to press out this goodness, to harvest it? Despite (and through) our rebellion, our perverted labors, our abuse, the sufferings of the whole world itself are productive.

As listeners, we are by now involved and implicated in a brutal and ugly scene. This trodding is our own gross and heedless brutality. Even the oil (a source of light and life) is perverted and takes on a sinister sense as we witness a grimy, greasy fouling of the once shimmering foil. No light is reflected now from this crushed and dirty pulp. No longer charged and pregnant, it is violated and exposed by unfeeling generations of well-shod feet.

In the second stanza, we slow down and transition back to the opening lines, recognizing, even amid the bleary mess, a fullness and depth within the world. This being-charged-with-the-grandeur-of-God was too complete to be fully spent (shaken or trodden out). But this second recognition of fullness is less exuberant, more subdued yet more profound. We now face reverent words like “deep down” and “dearest freshness.” After the violence, the ugliness of searing toil, the smell of men who do not reckon with God’s rod, we find that this world cannot be ultimately marred. Whether we use the world well or we abuse her, only God’s grandeur can flame out. She is charged with nothing but goodness. She is fruitful and precious to her very pit.

Finally, blear and smear recurs as the world swoons away in blackness, until over the brown (barren) horizon “springs” a “morning,” a new creation under the hovering wings of the Holy Ghost. This second visitation of the Spirit brings to mind the first brooding of God over the darkness and chaos. But here, at this second dawn or birth, we see for a moment that the agent is, in some subsidiary sense, our own senseless marching, our own brutal trade. Heartless abuse and long suffering, in the deeper goodness of God’s economy, exposes or brings out only God’s grandeur. Christ’s own long-suffering and motherly Spirit puts even our facile abuses to the task of ushering life outward and forward, to the knowing of “dearest freshness deep down things.” Refreshed by the beauty that Hopkins’ language points to so faithfully, we might even be ready to walk unshod over seared and blackened earth. We might lay ourselves down and embrace the charged (and crushed) world with our own warm breasts and tender young wings.

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