Have you ever ventured out into the natural world to find yourself meeting it with a sense of rapture, of ecstasy? Gerard Manley Hopkins certainly did. Maybe the sun was shining, maybe the rain pouring. You might have been alone, with a close friend or in a crowd. Whatever the way, you found yourself looking out on the world as though it is charged with power and joy. Some might call this experience numinous, others mystical. Some might think nothing of it at all.When I first read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins I knew he had a sense for the wildness of things, of nature, of birds and trees, and that he had a taste for their meaning. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he exclaims, and calls his readers to engage with the created world. “Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!” he says, look at the “May-mess” and the “march-bloom.” Though Hopkins writes about far more than just nature, for him a viewer who engages fully with the natural world thereby engages with God.
But why? We begin to catch a glimpse of the answer in the sestet of Hopkins’ sonnet, already quoted, The Starlight Night. With regards the wonder of the stars, and the majesty of the march-bloom, Hopkins explains
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
For Hopkins, the world can barely contain the glory of God harboured within, ready to announce itself to the observant viewer, who, in rapturous response “rears wings bold and bolder/ and hurls for him [God/Christ], O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.”
One of the purposes of my project was to consider how Hopkins’ view of nature fits within the wider Christian tradition. What is it rooted in and where might it lead?
To consider the first question I turned to John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan philosopher of the 13th century. Scotus’ influence on Hopkins is well documented, and even noted by Hopkins himself. Scotus’ most important innovation relates to the Christian idea of the incarnation. For most Christian theologians, the incarnation happened in response to and as a remedy for humanity’s sinfulness. Scotus, however, held the minority view that God would have become human even if humanity had not fallen into sin. Rather, the human incarnation of God was forever intended to be the glorious culmination of God’s plan of creation. Related to this idea is the notion that creation itself is a revelation of God a) because what artist can create something that does not reflect themselves? and b) because God is in the business of self-disclosure. Whilst any medieval scholastic philosopher would have agreed that the Good is self-communicative, Scotus’ vision is stronger than that because he emphasised that each thing expresses God in its own individual way, because of its individuality.
Where might this all lead us? To Thomas Merton, an avid reader of both Scotus and Hopkins. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who lived in the 20th century. He was a convert, a writer, a political activist, and a spiritual master for millions of Americans and people worldwide. Merton, drawing on Scotus, taught that each thing, simply by being itself, gives praise and glory to God. What’s more, such a message is central to the Merton’s understanding of Christianity; the human task is to simply be our true selves, stripped of disguise, pretence, anxiety and striving. If trees and flowers can do it, he asked, why can’t we?
Obviously these sorts of questions go deep and deeper, and can be approached from a hundred and one angles. I just know that when I go for a walk in the rain through the woods or along the Fife coastal path something in me comes alive like at no other time. Reading Hopkins I know that he had those experiences too, which is why I continue to read and enjoy him. I am grateful to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw Undergraduate Internship in Research and Leadership for this opportunity to have studied Hopkins’ poetry under the magnifying glass. For now I am left with more questions than I started with but perhaps that is to be expected. Still, I look forward to further exploring the natural world, to more deeply reading Hopkins, and to pondering the big questions of life, all from somewhere within the Christian Tradition.