Hopkins’s sonnets typically shift from a personal, often sensual experience rooted in the physical world to moral, philosophical, and theological reflections. Discuss this movement in relation to several poems.
The poetic shift from the world of experience to more abstract considerations reflects the way Hopkins believed all experiences to harken back eventually to the metaphysical, to God the creator. He believed that the world of nature (and even the man-made aspects of the experienced world) were all part of God’s creative expression, and that the spirit of God was infused in his creation. “God’s Grandeur” suggests that the energy of God runs through all things, sometimes welling up to an excess and revealing itself in bursts of brilliance or goodness. For Hopkins, because God infused all the world, the world was a means of access to spiritual truth, a way of getting in touch with God and his will and design. The transition in a poem such as “The Windhover” from the contemplation of a bird to the contemplation of God was therefore a very natural one for Hopkins, and one very deeply rooted in his religious beliefs. The Italian sonnet form is perfectly suited for this kind of poetic argument because it incorporates a turn of tone between the first and second parts.
Trace some images of science and technology in Hopkins’s poems. How did he reconcile scientific understanding with religious belief?
In “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins uses electricity as a metaphor for God’s power and presence in the world. The poem does not explicitly mention lightning, but lightning was one of the poet’s favorite images, and it is certainly suggested in the image of a charge that “will flame out” after “gather[ing] to a greatness.” Electricity was a focus of much research by scientists of Hopkins’s day, and lightning is a good example of a phenomenon that had traditionally been seen as a direct act of God. (Even the Greeks had attributed lightning bolts to the hand of Zeus.) As science began to propose physical explanations for lightning, many people considered such hypotheses a threat to religion and a denial of the existence of God. Hopkins was keenly aware of these sorts of debates, and he engages them at some level by choosing such provocative images for his profoundly religious poetry; yet he does not ponder long over the conflict, but rather swiftly (and summarily?) resolves it. He takes the patterns found in nature, and in the world’s various objects, as testimony to God’s hand in creating an orderly universe.
Read about how another Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, uses scientific language as a motif.