Victorian Poetry 39.1 (2001) 83-90
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Gerard Manley Hopkins' Reply to the Speculative Atheist 1
Readers of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "God's Grandeur" use a consistent strategy to analyze the poem: they outline an intellectual system, usually one dominant when Hopkins was writing, and then use this system to interpret the sonnet. 2 For instance, Todd K. Bender reads the "ooze of oil" passage within the context of the mechanics of the hydraulic press, whereas the Victorian tendency of obstinate questioning best captures the mood and content of the poem, according to James Kincaid. 3 For Roger L. Slakey, the theological shift from a generic Old Testament God to the Incarnate God of the New Testament gives the reader the intellectual coordinates for understanding the sonnet's central energy, while Alison G. Sulloway reads the poem as Hopkins' commentary on "heretical Protestant England, still nationally unconverted to Catholicism." 4 As for Terry Eagleton, he sees in the poem Hopkins working through Catholicism's ambiguous attitude toward the consequences of the fall on nature. 5 Another intellectual context, however, sheds considerable light on the poem, and if my intuitions about the sonnet are right, we will have to reconsider some of the earlier claims about the poem.
"God's Grandeur" begins with two bold sentences that seek to persuade the reader that God is present in the world. 6 More specifically, the narrator claims that the world is charged with God's grandeur and that we can see this through the reflected light of gold foil or through the cohesive force of crushed oil. These first sentences certainly remind the reader of Romans 1.20, where Paul insists that God's eternal power and divinity are made manifest through the visible world. 7 For this reason, Paul concludes that those who do not live a Godly life are inexcusable, since God has revealed Himself through His creation. 8 In like manner, Hopkins' narrator holds people in his time accountable, for since God has made Himself manifest through the visible world, the narrator can only ask: "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" [End Page 83]
While Hopkins' question reminds the reader of Paul's concern in Romans, there are a couple significant differences. In his excellent book A History of Atheism in Britain, David Berman makes an important distinction between two types of non-believers: moral and speculative atheists. 9 People who behave immorally, even if they believe in God, are still atheists, because they have not lived a life worthy of God's name. The speculative atheist, however, denies God's existence. So while a person is a moral atheist on the basis of behavior, a person is a speculative atheist on the basis of a system of non-belief. Significantly, speculative atheism was considered a conceptual impossibility during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but during the nineteenth century, this was changing drastically. To be sure, in Germany Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche vocalized their atheism with dramatic flare; 10 and in Britain, writers like George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Leslie Stephen, just to name a few, were evolving post-God philosophies of life, though they were much more guarded than their German counterparts. 11 With this turn toward speculative atheism in mind, we can make an important distinction between Paul's and Hopkins' pleas. In the context of Paul's letter, it is the moral atheists ("the irreligious and perverse spirit of men who, in this perversity of theirs, hinder the truth") whom he holds accountable, whereas in the context of Hopkins' age, it is the speculative atheists who must be persuaded. This explains Hopkins' urgent tone: "Why do men then now [today, in 1877, the age of Darwin, Marx, and Arnold] not reck his rod?" Many people may have been writing about the retreating "Sea of faith," but Hopkins claims that there are still compelling reasons to infer God's existence through nature, which explains why Hopkins concludes his sonnet with morning springing from...