This beautiful poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins came up in a class I was taking earlier this year.
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.
There is much to love about the poem. It celebrates the resilience of nature, which brings forth its beauty even though it is “seared with trade” and “wears man’s smudge.” I love how the poet notes that man has worn the soil bare, but doesn’t even get the pleasure of feeling the bare soil beneath his feet, because they’re shod.
The poet says “nature is never spent…because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” In my class, folks understood that the poem attributes nature’s resilience to God’s love, but no one, including the professor, appreciated fully the poet’s metaphor. When Hopkins wrote this poem, nearly everyone kept chickens. So his meaning would have been immediately obvious. Today, most folks need an explanation.
When a hen is brooding chicks, she loses the feather on her breast. This enables her body warmth to first incubate the eggs then later keep the chicks warm until they feather out. To keep the chicks warm the mother hen will take them under her wings. They all huddle under her this way at night.
When Jesus was grieving over the fate of Jerusalem, he said “I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” In a society accustomed to seeing hens and chicks, this would have made perfect sense. (A trivial aside: this is the only mention of chickens in the Bible).
These days few people have ever seen a brooding hen or even understand how a hen broods chicks. Even people who live on farms might not know, since so few chicks are brooded naturally any more. So it’s unsurprising that Hopkins’ image wouldn’t immediately be recognizable these days. And that’s a pity, because it is an extraordinarily beautiful image.
Hopkins imagines God as a hen pulling “the bent world” under her breast and wings. This is how he imagines God recharging and vitalizing the natural world, being trod upon, seared, bleared and smeared by man.
As I reflect upon that, so do I.