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A Short Analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’

A summary of a classic Hopkins poem

‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’ is a sonnet, but not as we know it. Or rather, it isn’t strictly a sonnet but the rhyme scheme puts us in mind of the sonnet. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) was probably Victorian poetry’s greatest innovator, and ‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’ is a good example of his metrical and linguistic innovativeness. But such unconventional language and metre require some close analysis. (In 1977, in fact, Stephan Walliser published a book-length analysis of the poem.) Here, first, is the poem, followed by some commentary on it.

That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’ is widely regarded as one of Hopkins’s greatest achievements. It was also one of the last poems he wrote, shortly before his untimely death, aged just 44, in 1889. After Hopkins’s annus mirabilis in 1877, when he was living in North Wales and wrote a spate of some of his finest and best-known poems including ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins moved to Ireland where, in the mid-1880s while plunged into depression, he penned the ‘Terrible Sonnets’, which reflected the despair and comfortlessness he felt at this time. And ‘comfort’, as the title of this poem makes clear, is central to ‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’.

A brief summary of the poem might help to shed light on its meaning, for Hopkins’s language is often difficult. The poem begins with, of all things, a description of clouds. But although the first word of the poem guides towards such an interpretation, have you ever seen the movement of clouds across the sky described in this way before?

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches

A series of metaphors for clouds is offered, which serve to personify the clouds, as though they’re roistering (and perhaps, slightly drunk) revellers going to, or from, a party in heaven: ‘heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs’. Hopkins then moves to a description of the wind, which dries (‘parches’) the earth of the rain deposited by yesterday’s storms (‘yestertempest’s creases’). The footprints left in the damp earth by farmworkers now become dried and hardened into ‘manmarks’ in the soil.

Hopkins likens this to the fire that Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, wrote about as being the essential element in the world, out of which everything had been created and by which everything would be destroyed. Hopkins then reflects that, in the grand scheme of things, mankind’s lifespan is of little consequence:

Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!

We, like the rest of nature, are destined to be ‘in an enormous dark / Drowned.’ Man, who shone like a star, is then put out by the darkness, like a candle being extinguished.

But then, with that ‘Enough!’, Hopkins turns to the Resurrection (of Christ following the Crucifixion, but also, perhaps, the resurrection of all souls foretold in Revelation) as a ‘heart’s-clarion’ which can provide comfort in the face of such wanton destruction and oblivion. Countering the darkness of man’s extinction, the Resurrection is a ‘beacon, an eternal beam’: now Hopkins is prepared to accept the mortal destruction of his body (‘Flesh fade, and mortal trash / Fall to the residuary worm’ – dead bodies placed in the earth are proverbially ‘food for worms’, though the word also suggests the older meaning of ‘worm’, i.e. dragon, conjuring that Heraclitean fire again), because he knows that, through the Resurrection, he will be ‘all at once what Christ is’, since ‘he was what I am’ – an ordinary man who came down and walked among mortals. And this ordinary man (‘Jack, joke, poor potsherd’) is only ‘matchwood’, destined to become ash, but through the eternity promised by the Christian Resurrection he is also ‘immortal diamond’ – something solid and everlasting, something that cannot change.

It’s worth pondering this final image. Diamonds were created deep in the earth when carbon atoms were pressed under extraordinary high temperatures to produce the rare gemstones. Of course, in terms of their elementary (and elemental) make-up, they are the same sort of thing as the ‘matchwood’ Hopkins likens to his mortal body: carbon. So Hopkins appears to be suggesting that it is through the struggle and heat of the Heraclitean fire, as well as the divine intervention promised in the Resurrection, that he will be made into ‘immortal diamond’. It’s perhaps not straightforward enough to say that ‘fire is bad’ and ‘Resurrection is good’: nature’s struggles batter Hopkins’s soul into a better shape so he is in a fitter state to become an immortal diamond when the End of Days arrives. At least, that’s how we analyse this enigmatic and challenging poem.

It might also be worth bearing in mind the context of the poem: although he doesn’t mention it in this poem (or, indeed, in his other poems), Hopkins was writing his poetry in a post-Darwinian age, in which people were aware that nature was a site of struggle, death, chaos, and destruction. Evolution seems to confirm what Heraclitus said several millennia ago: all of nature is in flux and operates in chaos (evolution itself isn’t chaos, of course, but the circumstances in which creatures live their lives, marked by competition, death, rivalry, and starvation, are chaotic at the individual level; and out of this chaos the ‘survival of the fittest’ comes). Whether Hopkins is specifically thinking of Charles Darwin and evolution in this poem is difficult to say. But it’s worth remembering that evolution was a firmly established idea by the late 1880s, when Hopkins wrote this poem.

Language is constantly shifting in this poem, with Hopkins’s compounds breaking apart into their constituent elements, in imitation of man’s disintegration at death but also Heraclitus’ idea of everything being in flux: note how ‘manmarks’ to describe the farmers’ footsteps breaks down into ‘Man’ (‘Man, how fast his firedint’) and ‘nor mark’, while ‘bonfire’ flickers again in the ensuing two lines, in ‘bonniest’ and ‘firedint’.

Although it doesn’t look like a sonnet, Hopkins’s poem actually begins by following the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, with the rhyme abbaabba given in the octave, followed by a sestet of cdcdcd. But then, a fifteenth line offers an extension to the traditional fourteen-line sonnet, and a further ten lines, rhymed deecfffggg, ensues. It’s significant that this takes the poem’s number of different rhymes up to seven, the same as a Shakespearean or English sonnet (though that has just fourteen lines as well): ababcdcdefefgg. But rather than concluding with a couplet of gg rhyme, we get a triplet: note how ‘I am, and’ at the end of the antepenultimate line is then rhymed with ‘diamond’ in the next two lines, so what we get is a rhyme of ‘I am, and’; ‘diamond’; ‘diamond’. But ‘diamond’ also contains ‘I am’ within it: the image is used to suggest something permanent and unchanging, but it also bears out Hopkins’s inner search for such permanence to lend his life and his soul meaning in a world of flux and change.

Hopkins died in 1889, not long after writing ‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’. He contracted typhoid fever and died aged just 44. His last words were reportedly ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on September 19, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I wasn’t aware of this poem until now. Thank you for posting it, and for the analysis.

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