Sound in Poetry: Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”

Everyone knows about rhyme.  But what about other sound devices—like the sounds of words. The poet Mary Oliver points out the differences in the phrases “Hush,” “Please be quiet!” and “Shut up!”  The first word is gentle.  It fizzles out and disappears into the quiet.  The second phrase is more abrupt.  It employs the use of mutes (consonants that cannot be sounded without a vowel and that end a syllable with a sudden stop of breath).  The third phrase stops the sound immediately with the two mutes: t and p.  The sound fits the meaning: it’s definitive, sudden, commanding.  A slammed door.  Shut up!

One of my favorite sound-sensitive poems is Gerard Manly Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” which follows below.   It’s also interesting to hear the poet Karen Volkman read the poem.  Volkman’s voice is expressionless and her pace quick, almost making the poem a kind tongue-twister.   Yet the beauty of Hopkins’ musical lines still shines through.

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
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; 10
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.



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