The sun’s ‘bright wings’

The sun’s ‘bright wings’

Sun breaking out, Valla, 1.1.2021

. . .
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.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur (1877)

‘He fell in love with Wales, its language and countryside. He learned Welsh, and even wrote verse in the language. He claimed that with a name like ‘Hopkins’ he looked on himself as half Welsh.’ [1]

From 1874 to 1877, Hopkins studied theology at St Beuno’s Jesuit college in North Wales in preparation for the priesthood and was ordained as a priest the year he wrote God’s Grandeur. This religious ‘ecopoem’ was written  at St Beuno’s in the countryside with views over the Vale of Clwyd. He had burnt his early poems and resolved not to write again until called to. December 1875, The Times reported a shipwreck off the Kent coast with many fatalities, including five Franciscan nuns. Inspired and encouraged by superiors, Hopkins wrote the long ambitious poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland (rejected for publication in 1876).

William Adamson writes, ‘At the beginning of 1877 Hopkins was in the midst of revising moral theology for his final exams and feeling ‘very very tired . . .’, despite his exhaustion, the period was marked by a sudden surge of creative activity.’[2] The poem is dated 23rd February, but was revised a couple of times that year.

Hopkins complains, ‘And all is seared with trade’. He thought both God and nature were being left behind in the growing momentum to produce and consume. The Second Industrial Revolution was underway. Manufacturers organised labour in factories and introduced the widespread use of machinery, and with rising competition efficiency was becoming essential. There was expansion of the railways, large-scale iron and steel production, greatly increased use of steam power, widespread use of the telegraph, increasing use of oil, and from the 1890s, the introduction of electric power.

An old joke tells of a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who are arrested during the Russian revolution for spreading the Christian, capitalist gospel, and thrown into a dark prison cell. In a bid to restore the light, each man reflects on the traditions of his own order. The Franciscan decides to wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for light. Nothing happens. The Dominican prepares and delivers an hour-long lecture on the virtue of light. Nothing happens. Then the Jesuit gets up and mends the fuse. The light comes on.[3]

Empire was feeding overseas. The Second Anglo-Afghan War and first Boer War were about to wage. At home, the Victorians were busy organising and re-organising the country, from public health to sport to the arts. The Public Health Act of 1875 made it an offence for manufacturers ‘in any mill, factory, dyehouse, brewery, bakehouse or gaswork, or in any manufacturing or trade process whatsoever . . . sending forth black smoke in such quantity as to be a nuisance.’[4] Hopkin’s brown brink was industry and pollution.[5]

The spring of 1877 saw the first Test cricket match between England and Australia (though in 1868 the team of Australian Aborigines toured England). On July 2, John Ruskin’s review in Fors Clavigera accusing Whistler of, ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ (for which Whistler took him to court for libel, winning damages of one penny). A week later, the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club begins its first lawn tennis tournament at Wimbledon.

‘I was stunned by Hopkins’ experimental breaking and re-making of the English language and heard in these new rhythms similarities with the jazz of musicians like Miles Davies . . . For Seamus Heaney, Hopkins was ‘the main man’.’ Michael Rosen[6] Hopkins was inventive in his unusual loose rhythm schemes, choice of language and use of neologisms. God’s Grandeur was not published until 1889, almost thirty years after his death.

The world’s grandeur is rooted in light and chemicals, in the the wonders of water, oceans and rivers, space, mountains, life, chlorophyll, trees and so much more.  This world is losing its wonder, can this new year make any difference?




[2] William Adamson, ‘’God’s Grandeur’: A Close Reading’, 2016,

[3] Sam Jones, ‘Who exactly are the Jesuits?’ The Guardian, 15.3.2013.

[4] Ernest Hart, Esq. The Sanitary Record, 1881, p225.

[5] Though William Adamson writes, ‘‘brown brink’ suggesting the potential fertility of the soil, the coming spring.’ And local authorities were obliged to provide clean water, sewage and refuse disposal, and ensure that only safe food was sold.

[6] ‘Michael Rosen visited St Beuno’s to discover Hopkins poetry’.  ‘The First Jazz Poet’ was broadcast on Radio 4, 1st of October, 2017.

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button