Victorian Poetry 40.2 (2002) 201-207
[Access article in PDF]
Flashing Foil and Oozing Oil:
Trinitarian Images in the First Quatrain of "God's Grandeur"
ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR AND IMMEDIATELY ACCESSIBLE CHRISTIANPOEMS in the English language launches its message with a pair of images that are immediately obscure. The apparently straightforward statement that opens Gerard Manley Hopkins' "God's Grandeur" reveals, like much of the sonnet's remainder, clear meaning in an instant and then further insight over time. However, the images that succeed that statement have long generated noisy confusion. A piece of foil, shaken by anonymous hands, produces flashes of light that sparkle forth like flames; oil oozes from something crushed or crushing, likewise unnamed. Though the poem is otherwise complex yet remarkably lucid, these images have at times been interpreted as signs of intentional oddness or sheer sloppiness. It is difficult, though, to believe that a poet writing of bare soil and shod feet, the setting sun and a brooding dove-images that are immediately evocative-would have deliberately opened with obscure concepts. And we should not easily accept that a poet skillful enough to speak powerfully to the widest possible range of readers may have begun a poem carelessly only to complete it with obvious care. Our widespread confusion should not lead us to assume that Hopkins meant to be confusing, nor that it was his bad fortune to be confusing when he meant to be profound, but rather that we may lack a ready understanding of the Roman Catholic faith which inspired him to write. Any reader educated in the symbolism of Catholicism should be aware that flames and oil juxtaposed must refer to the Holy Spirit; a closer examination of the actions described in these lines reveals a detailed, multi-faceted description of the Trinity.
Given the popularity of the poem, the inability of the critical public to come to modest agreement on its opening images is disturbing. Hopkins explained to Robert Bridges, his friend and correspondent, that the foil image was central, the poem written to expand upon it. His further, oft-quoted comment establishes that he developed this image with exquisite care, and gives us specific clues to his meaning that are too often ignored: [End Page 201] "I mean foil in its sense of leaf or tinsel. . . . Shaken goldfoil gives off broad glares like sheet lightning and also, and this is true of nothing else, owing to its zigzag dints and creasings and network of small many cornered facets, a sort of fork lightning too." 1 He has not left us with explanations for the oozing oil, but we do know that an earlier version of the poem uses the word "pressed" rather than "crushed"; 2 both the original choice and the candidate ultimately selected are, once again, instructive.
The two images, of foil with a sparkling shine and oil in a gradual ooze, are clearly linked, not only in their proximity but also in their poetics. Nonetheless many, failing to discern a substantial connection between the two, have looked elsewhere in the poem for help. Because the flamelike shining can be easily linked to the presumably electric charge in the first line, the oozing oil has been particularly subject to misinterpretation. It is often and accurately identified as oil pressed from an olive, but we have also seen a wide variety of theories suggesting that the oil may be petroleum in different states and conditions; everything from a hydraulic press to an oil lamp has been invoked. 3
Petroleum-based interpretations of the oozing oil often rely upon a linkage to the second quatrain, which is characterized by unpleasant images that recall human sinfulness. Thinking of the trod earth, some have pictured a foot stepping in a puddle of oil. 4 Thinking of man's smudge, some have imagined a thumb pressed in a drop of oil, and how this thumb might obscure one's vision. 5 Efforts to establish the closest relation to the second quatrain or even the sestet will lead...