Some time ago, when I tried to argue for the memorization of poetry, one reason I gave was that when we memorize poetry, we can contemplate it and come to understand it better. This weekend, I’d like to illustrate that argument with a brief reflection on three meanings I’ve seen in one simple word in the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”—meanings I don’t suppose I’d ever have noticed if I hadn’t memorized the poem and thus, almost perforce, reflected on it.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God, the priest-poet writes.
Charged. Like a battery charged full of electricity, the world pulses with God’s energy, by which alone it can have life; for in Him we live and move and have our being.
Charged. Like a heraldic banner charged with the sign of its lord, we and all the world bear the blazonry of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; we who are made in His image and likeness and walk daily under the heavens which proclaim His glory.
Charged. As messengers charged with the greatest mission of all, we are given His glory as a task, sent out to know, love, and serve Him; sent out to be always ready to account for the hope that is in us; sent out to baptize all nations in His name.
For thousands of years—perhaps for as long as the human race has existed—men have loved to tell tales of heroism. But man’s beliefs change concerning good and evil, honor and shame, piety and impiety; and as his ideas about the universe and his place in it shift, so do the stories he tells. So in The Iliad, Homer tells of a world filled with “The mere endless up and down, the constant aimless alternations of glory and misery, which make up the terrible phenomenon called a Heroic Age.” (Lewis 29-30.) But Virgil, seeing the rise of Augustus and the order of the young Empire, can write a poem in which the world moves from disorder to order, and his hero is filled with more purpose than Achilles could ever have known. Beowulf, however, is in another Heroic Age. From its beginning, Heorot stands “awaiting / a barbarous burning.” (Beowulf lines 82-3), and on Beowulf’s death his lordless people expect slaughter and slavery. But though Beowulf’s time has less earthly security than Virgil’s, something has changed: Christianity has come. Beowulf can be freer than Achilles, freer even than Aeneas; for Beowulf is an essentially Christian hero, with his actions informed by many circumstances around him, but acting with total free will.