God! giver of breath and bread,
World’s strand, sway of the sea,
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
The “invocation of the muse” of this poem addresses God, of course, Hopkins' inspiration for this poem. Hopkins uses the Anglo-Saxon word “master,” a verb made from a noun, which leads to a more dynamic expression than either “Thou, my master” or “Thou ruling me” -- it combines the sense of the verb and of the noun.
God is the provider of life, as well as of the world's shores and the ocean. The phrases in line 3 seem to be floating, but they are actually objects of “giver of,” along with “breath and bread.” The “strand,” the beach or coastline, and the “sway” (both in its sense of motion and of dominion) of the sea are given to men. The beginning focuses on the ocean to foreshadow its later importance. God is also the Lord of living and dead—both of which will appear in this poem. The moment of transition from one to the other ends up being quite important later.
The account of God's creation of the speaker is written with images of craftsmanship: this is not a God who simply wills the being of man, but who takes care and builds man—-just as He does in the creation account in Genesis, making man out of the clay of the earth. “After it almost unmade” is unclear; it might be a reference to some sickness or danger Hopkins had suffered, although I believe his severe health troubles began much later. In any event, the line shows God's dominion over the speaker, since He made him and can unmake him as easily but chooses to spare him. The sense of “dread” is not one of servile fear, but simply of reverence, as in the phrase used to a king: “my dread lord.” God's actions are worthy of dread, since He can do anything to make or mar us, but that does not mean that we are afraid of Him—-one of the mysteries of the faith. The speaker feels the touch of God—-a frightening thing, but he does not shrink back but instead feels God's touching finger, using God's primary action for his own following action of experiencing Him.
O at lightning and lashed rod,
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God,
Thou knowst the walls, altar and hour and night,
And the swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height,
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.
This next stanza is more difficult: it may refer to actual events of which we are unaware. Perhaps the speaker is projecting himself upon the shipwreck, as though he were there, in that lightning. Whatever the case may be, the speaker affirms his acceptance of God's actions—-he said yes to them and repeats his yes. He “confesses”--an important word when taken in a spiritual sense: think of the “confessors,” those saints who proclaimed their faith, especially in a time of persecution, but who were not martyred. Hopkins realizes that he is a confessor. The grace of martyrdom is not given him, but he never ceases confessing God. Especially he confesses the “terror” of God—his ultimate, fearable power.
Yet God understands the fear the speaker has, and knows about those things that have troubled him. God knows how the speaker's heart swooned in the face of the suffering He sent him. This stanza almost makes God seem cruel and merciless, treading a heart hard down, and yet taken with the rest of the poem, it can't really be understood that way. The speaker simply affirms his sufferings and acknowledges that God knows them. The last line is mysterious: I tend to think of the midriff of the ship, stressed to breaking point, but I really couldn't say.
(Lashed rod, a commentator suggests, may be a reference to the fasces of the Roman consuls: a bundle of an axe and rods, to show the consuls’ power to punish. Lightning, as well as being present in the wreck, is also a symbol of God’s violent power: “Thou art lightning and love.” The speaker "says yes" in the face of these frightening symbols of God's power because he trusts God despite his fear.)