Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

Words cannot express the great enjoyment I had as a teen getting lost in these very mountains pictured here, following the streams high up the slopes, resting in shade and sun, mesmerized by the sound of the sweet, jewel-encrusted water trickling to the cataracts that fed the lake. That slope on the left, just above the waterline was the means by which I put in a small boat and occasionally rowed from one end of the lake to the other, soaking in the quiet, staring at the fish, drifting in the breeze --untouchable.

Wintertime brought deep snow and I nearly cried at night as I could not sleep, staring out the window at the blue mountains, blazing in the moonlight and deathly silent. The stars (O, the stars!) overcast the sky, the Milky Way nearly blotting out space itself. The lights of night burned so so bright that shadows would cast to the ground as if it were day. I would put on my boots and coat, go outside, crunching up the snow-covered lane and muttering to myself, “how . . . how . . . ?”

The road past the cabin was once a rail-road bed and about half-way up the valley, a now-ancient trestle brought the train from one side of the mountain to the other. A earthen dam once held the lake in the higher up the valley, but broke at some point and the lake as we know it now sits forward. Following the stream up the valley, one would walk until one could walk no more, coming face to face with the mountains at the back of the valley. High up in the pass (just to the right of the upper-most middle of the picture, above) sits another small glacial lake, feeding a stream higher up that cascades down into waterfall that marks the rear wall of the valley.

Once, we hiked up our side of the mountain well before the trestle and followed the ridge to the rear of the valley, looking down at the stream in the bottom. We came up above the waterfall and felt like kings. Standing there above the cascade, one could look for miles the other direction, over the lake (beyond our view). Another time, we rode part way up the rear chain and hiked our way up to the pass to the glacial lake. High above the treeline, with head spinning for lack of oxygen, one breathlessly crumbles at the sight of the world.

Then I received devastating news, news that made me so angry I had yet something else I could not explain or describe. I was told that someone bought land from the proximity of the trestle all the way back to the rear of the valley, waterfall and everything—it was all private property, “no trespassing.” Somebody built a house back there and had this entire piece of heaven to himself. We had to see this, so we took the high road up on our side, hiked up above the treeline, crossed the rear waterfall and stood in the avalanche field on the far side of the valley, opposite the house and tried to understand what this person was doing.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) is worth a few moments of personal research for his contributions as a poet. He wrote:

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

I am not saying that people have no concept of beauty, but that they fail to see the source. They see the grandeur of creation, and make for themselves their own kingdom, and they never see the Creator. Man cannot see because we tread, sear, blear and smear and smudge. This is because (in the spirit of Kipling), they walk with shoes on leaving a deep and reckless trail, now crossing tracks and confusing the signs.

How marvelous that God will not allow His work to be trampled so easily. Nature cannot be “spent.” His fingerprints are deep and each time we look in places small and fresh, we straighten up gasping because our breath has been. His handiwork is vast and each morning we are awakened by the fresh spring of light that springs beyond yonder brown horizon and we are stunned.

Hopkins final lines are brilliant: “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.” Brooding is preoccupation and incubation, thinking. God is intensely involved in His Creation. He has not wound it up to let it wind down. He is over, in, covering, watching, guiding and directing. Curiosity abounds and stupefies us, reducing our vocabulary to “how . . . how?”

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