Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Sacrament of the World, Or God's Inscape

hopkins.jpg (11004 bytes)

"It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smitting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should."
--Gerard Manley Hopkins

"God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts--not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint.[. . .]Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits."
--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Hopkins' poetry deals with a number of themes dear to Christianity, including the holiness of martyrs, the struggle of faith in dry times, and the test of one's vocation.  But the theme that he is most famous for is that of God's immanent revelation of himself through the world.  Please note the definitions and basic introductions provided below.

inscape: "the 'individually distinctive' inner structure or nature of a thing; hence, the essence of a natural object, which, being perceived through the moment of illumination--an epiphany--reveals the unity of all creation" (Harmon and Holman, 5th edition).  Every object has an essence that can be perceived; this essence points to God's design of it and the unified design of the creation.

instress: "the force, ultimately divine, that creates the inscape of an object or an event and impresses that distinctive inner structure of the object on the mind of the beholder, who can perceive it and embody it in a work of art" (Harmon and Holman, 5th edition). God's instress reveals the inscape of an object not only so that it may praise him, but also so that it may be embodied in works of art, which are also acts of praise to God.  In Hopkins' thinking, we do not create the inscape of an object; God allows us to discover it via instress.

sprung rhythm: Glenn Everet defines sprung rhythm as "a complex and very technically involved system of metrics which [Hopkins] derived partly from his knowledge of Welsh poetry. It is opposed specifically to 'running' or 'common' rhythm, and provides for feet of lengths varying from one syllable to four, with either 'rising' or 'falling' rhythm" (Victorian Web). Hopkins' interest in poetic rhythm is also important because, in his thinking, poetic stress is aligned with an object's instress--both express a God-given beauty innate in the object.

Contemplation's Purpose

Hopkins, in his "The Principle or Foundation," discusses the spiritual practice of meditation and contemplation.  He stressed the purpose and role of creation: "He [God] meant the world to give him praise, reverence, and service; to give him glory. [. . .] With praise, reverence, and service it should shew him his own glory. [. . .] It is an altar and a victim on it lying in his sight: why is it offered? To his praise, honour, and service: it is a sacrifice to his glory" (228-229).  These three words are important to Hopkins because they show how we are in interact with God's expression of himself in the world:

  • Praise, according to Hopkins, is an act of the mind by which we understand the importance of what we apprehend.  We recognize God's glory for what it is.
  • Reverence is an act of intuition and emotion, but more important, it is a certain stance toward the world.  We pay close and long attention to the world in order to see what God has done there.
  • Service implies an act of the will: we are called to respond according to what we have seen--to teach others, to act differently, or to create works of art that embody the inscape of God's world.

"As Kingfishers Catch Fire"

lines 1-8: These lines stress the inscape of the creation, its fire and song.  Each creature (biological or geological) speaks of itself, and when it does, it ultimately speaks of its origins in God.

lines 9-14: So, too, does the just person.  The one who is just exhibits God's grace in himself or herself.  Moreover, this is Christ working through that person, and thus, God speaks to God through us.

"Pied Beauty"

This poem simply sets forth the glory of God in all things, especially things that might not strike us as first beautiful.  We are to praise him, who never changes, for his world with its ever-changing variety.

"God's Grandeur"

lines 1-8: The world is full of God's glory, so why do we trample it under with our industrial damage?

lines 9-14: Even so, we cannot destroy Nature completely because the Holy Spirit continues to create and birth the world.

"The Windhover"

lines 1-8: Hopkins tells Christ that he sees a falcon flying on the wind and that he was moved by the skill and mastery of his flight.

lines 9-14: But things can descend or fall or buckle. The fire of Christ is a billion times greater than the falcon. We shouldn't wonder that the beauty of a descent surpasses that of power.  The simple work of the farmer makes his plough shine.  The embers from a fire fall and break open to expose their beauty as well.


  1. Look at the Bonhoeffer quote above. Do Hopkins and Bonhoeffer agree? Why or why not?
  2. According to Hopkins, would it be a sin to simply enjoy something for itself without any consideration of God's glory? Why or why not? Do you agree?
  3. Does Hopkins' rhythm contribute to or detract from the beauty he wishes to set forth?  Explain your answer with examples.
  4. Look at Polanyi's theory of tacit knowing below. Can this idea be applied to Hopkins' assumptions about the world and the glory of God?  Why or why not?

[Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Hopkins: Selected Poetry and Prose. NY: Knopf, 1995.]

Tacit Knowing and The Glory of God

tacit knowing: "true knowledge involves personal involvement in knowing, the link between knowing and responsibility.  At the bottom of all human activity are things that are known, but cannot be put into words."   This suggests that tacit knowledge is imparted through mentoring relationships in which an apprentice is willing to submit to the master's way of doing things in order to learn them.

focal and subsidiary knowledge: "an awareness from and awareness to."  focal knowledge represents the activity that we focus on; subsidiary knowledge represents the latent knowledge that we must have to perform the task, i.e. bikeracing requires a great deal of subsidiary knowledge that the racer cannot focus on in the midst of a race but must nonetheless have ingrained.

[Some of these definitions are taken from material developed by Dr. David Naugle.]

Michel Polanyi observes: "An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice [. . .] To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. [. . .] These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to the extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition" (53)

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding