Several years ago I was helping my wife clean the attic of her parents’ home. We found 50 years of accumulated past wants --- the latest fashions (from the Sixties), four broken television sets, sad-eyed dolls, and outdated furniture. Pushing the cobwebs away, brushing away dust, we attempted to bring order from chaos. We searched for something, for anything worth saving.
I opened a mildewed cardboard box. Inside was the dank smell of old books. Reaching down in the jumbled pile, I fished out a worn copy of Modern American & British Poetry, copyright 1955. Thumbing through it, I came upon a section devoted to Gerard Manley Hopkins. I couldn’t put the book down. The attic cleaning could wait.
The next day I rushed out and bought a copy of the only Hopkins book I could find: The Immortal Diamond: The Spiritual Vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This slender volume contained a brief biography of the famous Jesuit poet and 53 of his best-known poems. I was particularly captivated by two of Hopkins’ poems: “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty.”
The most refreshing thing that I found in these poems was their marriage of spiritual wonder and technical ability. It can be a difficult marriage because so often the Christian, in his zeal, allows the poem to become overly didactic. At worst, it can become nothing more than a prop for dogma, a propagandizing tract. While Hopkins’ poems do carry moral meaning and serve a “teaching” function, he manages to give poetic voice to spiritual yearnings while respecting the nature and promise of the form. Thus, at the outset I was pleased to discover a “religious” poet who remained a poet.
You can read a bit more of something I've written on Hopkins here, but for now, enjoy one of his richest poems, "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 was fitting to discover Hopkins in a humble pile of discards in a dusty attic. For all his ability, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet of humility, full of wonder and hope at the beauty of nature and of the Divine, yet cognizant of his finite human form. “I am all at once what Christ is, since he/ was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch,/ matchwood, immortal diamond,/ Is immortal diamond.” Reading Immortal Diamond, I saw his many facets. I saw words that shine. And I remembered who I am before God.