Seeing Easter in a Sonnet

What is the sound we hear that alone may dispel the darkness, vanquishing beneath its wings the dangers that assail us? Nothing less than the Third Person of the Trinity.

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Wandering through the aisles of the Widener Library back in 1926, a young Harvard undergraduate by the name of Stanley Kunitz, destined in later years to become a distinguished poet, happened upon a collection of verse written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom he’d never heard of, and straightaway discovered his vocation.

It was all so random, he admitted years later, that what should suddenly pop out at him on the very first page was “God’s Grandeur,” a poem unlike anything he’d ever seen before. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I opened this book and started reading that poem.” So shaken was he by the lyric ardor and intensity of the thing—“so fierce and eloquent, wounded and yet radiant”—that he realized at once it was “speaking directly to me and giving me a hint of the poetry that I would be dedicated to for the rest of my life.”

Stanley Kunitz died in 2006 at the age of 100, having five years before become America’s Tenth Poet Laureate, a crowning achievement, one might say, to a life wholly given over to the making of verse. But for all that is likely to endure in his own work, it will never reach the heights set by Hopkins. And I suspect, given the seismic impact Kunitz felt on first reading Hopkins, he would gladly agree. 

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What was it about “God’s Grandeur” that produced so profound and far-reaching a change in the life of young Stanley Kunitz and, indeed, in the lives of so many who have felt the same transformative magic? And, by the way, there might well have been no magic whatsoever had not a certain prescient Jesuit Superior suggested that Hopkins, then a young scholastic studying for the priesthood, write a few lines to memorialize the deaths of five Franciscan nuns, drowned off the coast of England in the winter of 1875 while fleeing anti-Catholic persecution in Bismarck’s Germany.

Crying out amid the repeated blast of the storm—“O Christ, come quickly, come quickly!”—Hopkins was so moved to honor their heroism that, ending years of self-imposed literary silence, he straightaway produced 280 lines of immortal poetry to prove it. 

The result was “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” the opening stanza of which would catapult him into the upper reaches of religious lyric, a pantheon then occupied by the likes of Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw:

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 dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

There would soon follow an explosion of creativity, a half dozen or so poems leading up to his priestly ordination, exulting in the strange and awesome wonders wrought by God, of which the first and most unforgettable remains a fourteen-line sonnet called “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.   

What is it about this poem that instantly galvanizes the reader? That’s the exact word to use, by the way, in describing its language, the inspired imagery it deploys, because it hits the reader straight on, like a sudden electric charge, showcasing the action of God upon the world He made—and, from moment to moment, remakes, holding it forever in being. He keeps all that is-ing, one might say, going. 

The act of creation, in other words, is no static affair, as though having first brought things into being, they happily stay in place. No, it is an ever present, ongoing business, bursting constantly forth—flaming forth, as it were—“like shining from shook foil.” No other word would do to achieve the desired effect. “Shaken gold-foil gives off broad glares,” he would explain, “like sheet lightning and also, and this is true of nothing else, owing to its zigzag dints and crossings and network of small many cornered facets, a sort of fork lightening too.”

How fitting, too, that in its very coalescence we are made to see such greatness as only the image of “the ooze of oil / Crushed” can do justice to it. And, yet, we remain sadly indifferent to it all. Why do we not “reck his rod?” Why must we refuse to heed, to obey, the rule so lovingly laid down by God to ensure our happiness? Instead, we trample upon all that is made, despoiling this most delicate creation, as though defilement were the signature we’ve chosen to wear.

Ah, but debasement and wreckage are not the last word. Such is the handwork of a good and prodigal God that “the dearest freshness deep down things,” will always be there to evince an irrepressibility so total and triumphant that nothing we do to cheapen and corrupt God’s world will finally succeed. We are thus free to rejoice, along with dear Fr. Hopkins, knowing that, “Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—”

On what precise note does it spring? What is the sound we hear that alone may dispel the darkness, vanquishing beneath its wings the dangers that assail us? Nothing less than the Third Person of the Trinity, “the Holy Ghost (who) over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

May all our Easters be radiant with such certitude and joy.

Author

  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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