As a reader, “God’s Grandeur” staggers me with its ‘bringing into being,’ immediately: first, an unflinching declarative, then the flame, then oil, blotted. Its writing has established a precedent for the statement and images it posits; I can follow the emergence of searing formation, having just borne witness.
This is the first of the poem’s many achievements.
There is something unmistakable about a Hopkins piece once one has read him. His ‘sprung’ accent-based rhythm (especially heavy-stress feet like ‘Why do men then now not reck his rod?’) has long been sung, and one can see his willingness to rearrange sentence structure and cut prepositions as servant to his interest in several sonic tropes, cascading rhyme (‘men then’ or ‘bleared, smeared’) and hard monosyllables (‘wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell’) among them. The lushness of his vocabulary would give the Maenads good call. As well, the passion of his muse lends, to my taste, a very careful intelligence (check the concept of how greatness ‘gathers’ like ‘the ooze of oil/Crushed’) to the pure ecstasy of ‘shining from shook foil,’ which floors me every reading.
The payoff of Hopkins’ willingness to subjugate rhetoric is most clear in phrases like
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
which claim both the raw edge of revelation’s immediacy, and its strange grace. In contemporary verse, a move like ‘deep down things’ (could it ever happen just like that) is a chest bump, a kind of mumbled expletive in the direction of ‘academy’ work, that always manages to simper a bit too self-reverentially. Its sincerity here is obvious, as is its inevitability.
In “God’s Grandeur,” as in a work like “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” the genius always feels tied to the mysticism of Hopkins’ viewpoint, and my natural romanticism sees his mind-blowing phrasings (remember ‘Turned for an exquisite smart,/have you!’?) as the abiding gift of a God granting his disciple superior singing tongue. The fact that many great artists are less than devout seems reason enough to doubt this, at least directly. Yet Hopkins’ openness to a realm beyond the palpable and pragmatic undoubtedly fosters roads into the Spirit, or into reckoning with matters of the spirit, that cannot be faked like a poem about, well, my most recent mobile phone call.
In the end, the meter of the poem is virtuosic, and its abiding sentiment—that, despite man’s recurrent lapses into ignorance, the clear workings of God that make the world ‘charged’ will not relent in their magical grace, with or without thanks—has lift, alongside clear originality of music and sensibility. What makes it great is Hopkins’ complete willingness to dissolve and disperse his intent into every fabric of its motion. A visionary will write a visionary’s poems, and a mystic hers; their ‘realness’ is felt as a pervasive sincerity, of which we see so little these lean days.