Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Manifestation of God in Nature

Hopkins used poetry to express his religious devotion, drawing his images from the natural world. He found nature inspiring and developed his theories of inscape and instress to explore the manifestation of God in every living thing. According to these theories, the recognition of an object’s unique identity, which was bestowed upon that object by God, brings us closer to Christ. Similarly, the beauty of the natural world—and our appreciation of that beauty—helps us worship God. Many poems, including “Hurrahing in Harvest” and “The Windhover,” begin with the speaker praising an aspect of nature, which then leads the speaker into a consideration of an aspect of God or Christ. For instance, in “The Starlight Night,” the speaker urges readers to notice the marvels of the night sky and compares the sky to a structure, which houses Christ, his mother, and the saints. The stars’ link to Christianity makes them more beautiful.

The Regenerative Power of Nature

Hopkins’s early poetry praises nature, particularly nature’s unique ability to regenerate and rejuvenate. Throughout his travels in England and Ireland, Hopkins witnessed the detrimental effects of industrialization on the environment, including pollution, urbanization, and diminished rural landscapes. While he lamented these effects, he also believed in nature’s power of regeneration, which comes from God. In “God’s Grandeur,” the speaker notes the wellspring that runs through nature and through humans. While Hopkins never doubted the presence of God in nature, he became increasingly depressed by late nineteenth-century life and began to doubt nature’s ability to withstand human destruction. His later poems, the so-called terrible sonnets, focus on images of death, including the harvest and vultures picking at prey. Rather than depict the glory of nature’s rebirth, these poems depict the deaths that must occur in order for the cycle of nature to continue. “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” (1889) uses parched roots as a metaphor for despair: the speaker begs Christ to help him because Christ’s love will rejuvenate him, just as water helps rejuvenate dying foliage.

Read about the related theme of the beneficial power of nature in the poetry of William Wordsworth.