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Flashing foil and oozing oil: Trinitarian images in the first quatrain of "God's Grandeur".

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR AND IMMEDIATELY ACCESSIBLE CHRISTIAN POEMS 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: "1 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."' 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 us astray, because in every sense, the image of the oozing oil is linked far more closely to the earlier image of the shaken foil. The alliterative patterns, the structure, and the antecedent of the "it" that these images metaphorize--all are either striking similar or entirely identical.

It is particularly misleading to look for a mirror or a magnifying glass in the second quatrain, which focuses primarily on humanity's shortcomings. In the first, Hopkins is introducing his subject, elaborating with similes that describe either the grandeur of his God, the world's response to that grandeur, or, most likely, both. Terms suitable for describing human sinfulness would not be helpful here, because the world is sinful in spite of God and his grandeur, not because of it.

The twin images contain elements that any Catholic and many other Christians should recognize as being symbolically important and inextricably linked: flames and oil. Boyle, who like Hopkins was a Jesuit, noted their common symbolism: "The Holy Ghost is the subject of the poem, the source of the grandeur with which the poem begins. And now the opening images take on a new significance. They too are symbols of the Holy Ghost--the flame and the unction." (6) Unfortunately, this crucial explanation has been all but ignored. One is left wondering if, simply by choosing the word "unction," which though certainly not obscure is much less familiar than "oil" or even "anointing," Boyle inadvertently doomed truth to near oblivion.

With even moderate awareness of Christian and particularly Catholic symbolism, the primary significance of the flames and the oil becomes quite clear. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that when the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ's twelve apostles at the Pentecost, he appeared in the form of flames. (7) As for the oil, the majority of the sacraments, including Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders (ordination), involve anointing with holy oil as a sign of the coming Spirit; the essential ingredient, besides a blessing, is olive oil. Anointing signifies the Spirit's touch "to the point of becoming a synonym for the Holy Spirit," according to the Catechism. (8) Though in other Christian denominations the symbolism is not always applied in quite the same way, these ideas are not unique to Roman Catholicism. Certainly all Christian faiths know that the flames of Pentecost announced the Holy Spirit, because the Acts verses tell us so. The symbolism of "anointing" is also biblically base d and recognized even in Christian traditions that reject the formal rituals that the Roman Catholic Church employs to signify and celebrate the coming of the Spirit. (9) In Christianity, anointing and fire are reliable signs of the third person of the Trinity.

If we require more evidence of Hopkins' intent, we need only consider his prose. The Holy Spirit is the subject of a rumination often mentioned in conjunction with this poem, but that fact is usually omitted from the discussion. Hopkins wrote: "All things therefore [i.e., because of the Holy Spirit] are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him." (10) Since Hopkins echoes his own language--not only the word "charged" but the fiery sparks and fluid yield--we should not be satisfied with an explication of the foil/oil images that cannot be directly connected to this quotation and to its reference point, the Holy Spirit.

There has been a consensus that "God's Grandeur" is on the whole Trinitarian, and some have even noticed that the opening and closing lines refer to the Holy Spirit. (11) There have also been several attempts, some solid, to explain the poem in relation to Christian and specifically Catholic theology. Of these, White and Erb are the most helpful, (12) and Slakey perhaps the best example of how misleading partial familiarity with Catholic thought can be. (13) His assertion that the Holy Spirit "implies something of the inner life of God" is especially confusing. (14) He may have remembered that St. Augustine described the Holy Spirit as God's soul; perhaps he understands "the soul" in the popular-culture sense of one's "inner self," forgetting that the soul is a complex and inherently religious concept that has nothing in particular to do with introspection and everything to do with full spiritual action. He meanwhile overlooks the Catholic view of the Holy Spirit as the person of the Trinity who communicates with humanity, reveals God to us, and expresses God's love.

The shining foil and the oozing oil refer to the Holy Spirit not only in their formal symbolism but also in their actual activity. Both the flame like shining and the oil pressed from the olive are emanations from an originating, intrinsically valuable substance: gold in the one case, olives in the other. Hopkins' explanation of his foil establishes that this is no everyday kitchen foil but a precious substance, true gold, fine yet substantial. The olive may seem the less grand of the two, but the ancient significance of the olive as a carrier of riches and the sacramental importance of its oil should combine to confirm its status as an appropriate choice.

Though all persons of the Trinity are eternal, the Holy Spirit, in the Roman Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations, is said to "proceed from the Father and the Son"; the words "spiration" (i.e., "breathing") and "procession," both implying emanation, are used to explain the Spirit's origination. The Son, though occasionally also described as "proceeding," is more often said to have been "begotten"; in contrast to spiration, his origination is one of "filiation." Athenagorus, one of the ante-Nicene Church fathers, described the Holy Spirit as the "effluence of God, flowing from Him and returning back again like a beam of the sun." (15) The Spirit is usually depicted, in both scriptural and non-scriptural metaphor, in ways that reflect emanation and extension. The Spirit is a breath, as when Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20.22). He is a wind or flowing water. He is a finger or a hand or a tongue of fire, because the Spirit is God touching the world. H e is a dove, sent forth with a message. (16) The Spirit outpours, and thus in Roman Catholic Baptism, the water is usually poured over the head.

Hopkins' images of damage--wreckage and bruising--are often images of the crucifixion and so represent Christ. (17) We can see this continued in the image of the crushed olive: (18) Hopkins no doubt first used the word "pressed" because that is what we usually call the pressure applied to extract olive oil; yet he changed it to "crushed," thus invoking a sense of violence that could better forge a parallel to the body of Christ. We can extend this interpretation to the shaken foil, as well, because potentially damaging force is the most important feature of this imagery. The flame like sparkles and the oozing oil are just as essentially descriptive of the Holy Spirit, and the opening lines, therefore, depict the Trinity. In this metaphorical approach, the foil and the olive--representing God the Father--are shaken and crushed--signifying the Son--to produce flames and oil, emanations that reveal essence--that is, the Holy Spirit. When the olive is pressed and when the foil is shaken, the action is at once un ified and tripartite. The resulting images provide analogies of the Triune nature that are in their own way as satisfactory as more familiar representations: the spring, river, and pool, and the sun, heat, and light. Hopkins' image may be the most satisfying, for it addresses not only the apparent contradictions of tri-unity but the character of the three persons, elaborating on the particular missions of the Son and the Spirit. He addresses as well the nature of the Spirit's procession from the Father and the Son (that is, through the Son), a concept that had been important to the schismatic dispute with the Eastern Church.

Recognizing the similarity between the twin foil/oil images helps us to understand each in its entirety; however, it is just as enlightening to oppose one image with the other and find a noticeable difference that further contributes to their shared meaning. The briskly shaken foil sends out a quick burst of light; this contrasts with the pressed olive, which gradually yields its essence. (19) The difference in these actions parallels, in time rather than in space, the different types of shining Hopkins sought from his foil: the fork lightning with its intense, localized concentrations, and the sheet lightning which, though quick, emits a more homogenous glow.

Hopkins' appreciation for variegated aspects of the world is well known, but in this case he has selected variegated images for the Trinity; although the preferences are no doubt related, the explanation for this particular choice must differ in some points from traditional interpretations of, for example, "Pied Beauty." If God is unchangeable, how can this depiction reflect him or his grandeur? Though the Christian God is unchangeable, it is inherent in the concept of a communicative God that we may, both individually and collectively, experience him differently over time and space. The fork and sheet lightning, the flashing foil and the oozing oil, represent the difference between the bursts of grace and other communication that reach mankind through the Holy Spirit, and the steady love that infuses the earth, constantly and everywhere, infused it even before the Pentecost completed revelation.

By coupling familiar Spirit images with unexpected settings, Hopkins intensifies the illustrative effect of the contrasts between a flash and an ooze, and, by extension, between fork and sheet lightning. The flame and the oil would ordinarily be pictured in much more static conditions. The flames of Pentecost illuminated the apostles, rather than thrusting to earth like bolts of lightning. Sacramental oil is transferred gently from celebrant to recipient with a slow move of the thumb. The dove is in contrast most commonly pictured in flight; this is the most vigorously dynamic of the Spirit symbols. Yet Hopkins inverts these usual conceptions, depicting instead oil emerging from its olive and flames thrust forth; then, in the last lines of the poem, he depicts a dove not in flight but brooding, nurturing. These uncommon representations emphasize the contrast between the constant love of God for the world and the concentrated transfer of grace in particular moments in space and time.

Each foil/oil image must be understood in its entirety, as one motion, because the unity of the Triune God is essential. This unity is the core of the faith's great mystery; it has traditionally been the major obstacle to presenting theologically sound and instructive analogies for the Trinity. Since true three-in-oneness is never seen in nature, all Trinitarian analogies are bound to fall short. St. Patrick's legendary and perhaps apocryphal shamrock, for example, may work on some levels, but could also mislead if taken too literally: the leaves, though joined, are parts of a whole and largely separate from one another. Hopkins' depictions, as well, have limitations. The oil does not contain all of the components of the olive, and the shining is merely a reflection of the foil. Hopkins has identified analogies that satisfy in many aspects: the oil is the essential and valuable part of the olive, and the radiation of the foil bears its qualities of shining as well as the variegation Hopkins admired; yet the homely metaphors are limited by human reality and thus cannot explain the divine mystery. It is possible that Hopkins was reluctant to explicitly name his subject because he was aware that his metaphors were necessarily incomplete. He left the intended subject of his unusual images vague, to a degree that many have found frustrating. Hopkins thus addressed a thorny theological issue without theological error; instead, he generally evoked the emanatory qualities of God without falsely limiting the essential unity of the Trinity to worldly conceptions.

The poem does not suffer from his lack of specifity but rather expands in meaning. Though Hopkins selected a metaphor that is decipherably Trinitarian and therefore seems on one level to be describing God, it would not be misleading to apply this metaphor to its other possible subjects. Triunity is an essential facet of God's grandeur as well as of God himself. The world is no less an appropriate subject; drawing parallels between God and humanity (e.g., between Christ and his Church on the one hand, and husband and wife on the other) is a common feature of Catholic thought. We bear similarity to God because he made us in his image. Through his grace we can become more like him, and in fact this is God's "charge": an electric love, certainly, but also a responsibility to imitate him in order that we may share in his grandeur.

The sparkling sheet of foil and the oozing olive oil were carefully selected to balance the final image of the bright, brooding dove. The dove, the oil, and the flame are all Spirit symbols, and Hopkins' unique depictions of them force a new appreciation for their meanings. When, as the poem closes, we read of the brooding dove, we see her as nurturer. Yet the last three words, "ah! bright wings!" remind us of her dynamism, her potential to return to action for focused delivery of grace. The wings, therefore, by themselves possess the contrasts Hopkins sought between the brisk shake and the gathering ooze, and in the foil's different patterns of radiation. The wings can provide enduring, warming love but can also project that love with directed, momentary intensity.

Hopkins' choice of images in the first quatrain is certainly not a flaw nor even a peculiarity, and once the lexicon of Catholic symbolism is recalled, the images are not terribly mysterious. The oil, flame, and dove are three of the most recognizable symbols of the Holy Spirit, and like many symbols their meaning can be lost--as they seem to have done for this poem's many readers--if they are not re-examined in new lights. Hopkins has given us a many-layered opportunity to re-evaluate these symbols and their significance for faith in a Trinitarian God. As we know from the last lines and should know from the first, Hopkins tells us that we experience God's grandeur on this earth through the steady and dynamic action of the Holy Spirit.


(1.) Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1955), pp. 168-169.

(2.) Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956), P. 144.

(3.) Todd Bender, "Hopkins' 'God's Grandeur,"' Explicator 21 (1963), Item 55; George E. Montag, "Hopkins' 'God's Grandeur' and 'The Ooze of Oil Crushed,"' VP 1 (1963): 302-303.

(4.) Donald H. Reiman, "Hopkins' 'Ooze of Oil' Rises Again," VP 4 (1966): 40-41.

(5.) Edward Proffitt, "Hopkins' 'Ooze of Oil/Crushed' Once More," Concerning Poetry 10 (1977): 63.

(6.) Robert Boyle, Metaphor in Hopkins (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), p. 52.

(7.) Acts 2.1-4, New American Bible.

(8.) Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1999), p. 160 (no. 695).

(9.) Acts 10.38; Luke 4.18. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian faiths speak of "Spirit-anointing," and "anointing in the Spirit," although of course in a strictly metaphoric sense; they rarely employ oil in their celebrations.

(10.) Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Christopher Devlin, S.J. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), p. 195.

(11.) Largely because of the phrase "reck his rod" in the fifth line and the Holy Spirit's explicit appearance in the thirteenth line, almost everyone agrees that "God's Grandeur" is primarily Trinitarian. For some who have identified the Holy Spirit in the first quatrain see Brooks Wright, "Hopkins' 'God's Grandeur,"' Expl 10 (1951): Item 5; Gertrude M. White, "Hopkins' 'God's Grandeur': A Poetic Statement of Christian Doctrine," VP 4 (1966): 285-286; James Finn Cotter, Inscape: The Christology and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), pp. 168-172. Yet none of these have noted the crucial connection between oil and the Holy Spirit; they have linked the oil at best to the sacraments, but more often have found a connection only between the olive and the body of Christ.

(12.) White, p.285; Peter Erb, "Perichoresis and the Poetry of Hopkins," HQ 11(1984-(1985): 67-78.

(13.) Roger L. Slakey, "The Grandeur in Hopkins' 'God's Grandeur,"" Vp 7 (1969):159-163; Slakey, "'God's Grandeur' and Divine Impersoning," VP 34 (1996): 73-85.

(14.) Slakey, "Divine Impersoning," p. 73.

(15.) Athenagorus, Plea for the Christians, trans. B. P. Pratten, chap. 10. Available online in "Early Church Fathers, v.2.0" at: (

(16.) Acts 2.2; Catechism, nos. 694-701. The latter is a listing of Spirit symbols which includes further Biblical references.

(17.) George P. Landow, Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 6-8, 179-187.

(18.) See White, p. 286, and Erb, p. 68 for brief discussions of the crushing of the olive as a symbol for Christ.

(19.) Other approaches to this contrast may be found in Slakey, "The Grandeur," pp. 159-163; and Paul L. Mariani, A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1970), p. 94.

ELIZABETH VILLEPONTEAUX is an editor for a drug development and medical information company in Durham, North Carolina. Her previous publications have been primarily in scientific fields.
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Author:Villeponteaux, Elizabeth
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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