Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” is far more powerful than William Wordsworth’s pondering and wandering on the banks of the Wye because Hopkins did not turn away from the dark reality…
In England for a family celebration, we drove from Herefordshire down the beautiful Wye Valley stopping at the “bare ruined choir” of Tintern Abbey. The grandfather of the Romantic movement, William Wordsworth rhapsodized over the beauty of the scene in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour.”
The beautiful Wye valley was a favorite of the Victorian tourist, always hungering for “a view.” Pleasure boats steamed upriver from Chepstow, and hikers walked the hills above, following the Offa’s Dyke Path. While enjoying a cup of coffee at the cafe overlooking the monastery ruins, I took a few moments to re-read Wordsworth’s poem.
With the river on one side, it was easy to share his mood as he praised “These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs with a soft inland murmur.” I had visited Tintern Abbey first on a walking tour with my son, some twenty years ago, so on this overcast day I could connect with Wordsworth’s feelings,
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The lines above express Wordsworth’s romanticism: a vague kind of deism, a pantheistic appreciation of nature in which the poet always seems aware of a brooding presence.…
that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
While I appreciated Wordsworth’s fine sentiments, what troubles me is not only the fuzzy pantheism, but also the poet’s lofty disconnection from reality. For example, he muses with a romantic notion about a hermit,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
He is seemingly oblivious to the monastic life that was actively led within the ruins at which he was looking. The monks who lived there were part of an active and robust community of work, prayer, and study. They were not hermits meditating in their solitary cave.
Furthermore, during the time of Wordsworth’s visit, the Wye Valley was blighted with the industrialization for which Victorian England was so notorious. After the dissolution of the monastery, the adjacent area began to be industrialized. A wire factory was established, which was fed by foundries fired by furnaces fueled by a wood-hungry charcoal industry. In addition, the hillsides above the Abbey were quarried for the making of lime at a kiln, and the trees were harvested for their bark needed for the local tanneries.
Consequently, the whole valley was mired in industrial pollution, while the ruins themselves were occupied by poor industrial workers. One writer remarked on “passing the works of an iron foundry and a train of miserable cottages engrafted on the offices of the Abbey.” Critic Marjorie Levinson suggests that Wordsworth’s romantic vision was rather selective, and that he managed “to see into the life of things” only by “narrowing and skewing his field of vision” and by excluding “certain conflictual sights and meanings.”
Wordsworth’s vague pantheistic brand of deism can be contrasted by a poet of the next generation, the Catholic convert and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins experienced a similar love of nature and felt the surge of the Spirit within, but his vision was clarified by his Catholic faith. As a Jesuit priest, he did not escape to a rural idyll in the Lake District with a nice inheritance, but went to minister to the Irish laborers in Britain’s Northern industrial cities. In Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow he faced the deprivation and despair brought on my extreme poverty, horrendous working conditions, nonexistent health care, and poor sanitation of the terrible slums. Indeed, embracing poverty himself, Hopkins would die young from typhoid brought about by the foul drains of a dilapidated seminary in Dublin.
It was this realism that brings the extra punch and power of Hopkins’ best and most gut-wrenching work. The darkness of his poetic despair in “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day” makes Wordsworth’s poetic dreaming seem effete. Hopkins also felt the brooding power of life within nature, but he recognized the purity and power of the Holy Spirit. His poem “God’s Grandeur” is far more powerful than Wordsworth’s pondering and wandering on the banks of the Wye because Hopkins did not turn away from the dark reality.
Wordsworth turned a blind eye to the pollution and poverty at Tintern. Hopkins waded right in. He saw the pollution and poverty and the greed behind it, lamenting the smudge and spoliation of the natural world:
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.
However, Hopkins also sees the unrelenting creative power of God’s spirit. His theology and his faith enabled him to recognize the Holy Spirit, and his poetic power can rejoice in it without being coy or using circumlocution—as so many lesser religious poets might do. Hopkins uses the “smudge, toil and soil” to push us into his final realization of the triumph of the breath of God:
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.
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