I read my first Hopkins poem as a freshman in high school. The poem was “God’s Grandeur” contained in an anthology of poems carefully selected and compiled for us by our English teachers.
But between me and Hopkins, it wasn’t a case of love at first sight. An adolescent who had barely learned to appreciate any kind of poetry, I found his language and style too alien. And for some reason, the verses he wrote were much less accessible to me than the better known and more frequently quoted poems about roads less taken, tigers burning bright, and even that one creepy raven.
I was reintroduced to Hopkins’ poetry many years later, thanks to two Jesuit professors, both faithful devotees of the Victorian poet. One of them made us–a class of Jesuit seminarians–wrestle with the epic “The Wreck of the Deutschland” on our very first day, the first lines of which are quoted on sculptor Eric Gill’s bas relief of the creation of Adam displayed in the headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva:
THOU mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing; and does thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
Those words are unforgettable especially since we were made to commit them to memory so many years ago. Our professor was Fr. Alfeo Nudas, a taciturn man who taught in the state university and wrote a singularly controversial weekly column in the national papers. He believed that the best way for us to learn creative writing was to memorize the words of “the masters of the word,” chief among whom, for him, was, of course, Hopkins. Fr. Nudas also insisted that we stage a lengthy one-man play about Hopkins called “Immortal Diamond.” No one was willing to memorize the entire script, so in a stroke of collective genius and in the name of artistic license, that one-man play was performed by a company of eight young and idealistic, but amateur Jesuit actors.
It is now 25 years later: The youth of those days has long gone, and our idealism has seen some wear and tear. Some of my classmates have left the order, while others have parted company even if they’ve stayed. All these years, despite changes in career and interests, I’ve remained a student of Hopkins, who has taught me as much about words as about the world.
Today, on the Feast of the Pentecost, but also on the occasion of Hopkins’ 125th death anniversary, I am filled with a strange nostalgia. And I can’t help but recall that very first Hopkins poem that I read so many years ago, “God’s Grandeur.” It is a poem perfect for Pentecost, from the daring declaration of its opening line: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Like electricity indeed, God’s magnificent presence in the world may not be visible, but very powerful.
The poem continues with the promise that this grandeur will not be contained, for it will “flame out,” “gather to a greatness.” Then Hopkins, in an ecological voice way ahead of his time, decries how humanity has been wasting the earth, so that “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil…”
Those lines may well apply to our own lives. Sometimes when we look back at our personal histories, we can’t help but see the shadows along with the light, remembering the times when we screwed up and things fell apart even as we also recognize the way God has faithfully kept us safe and guided us even in our bleakest and blackest of hours.
As the poem assures us, despite everything that goes wrong in this world, we survive and hope somehow thrives, thanks to the Holy Spirit:
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.
This is the promise of Pentecost. Let us then pray today that the Holy Spirit will constantly hover over us in our lives. And despite the havoc we or those around us sometimes wreak, may God’s Spirit continue to brood over our bent world until that day when before our very eyes, God’s greatest gift for us will finally hatch.