Poetry and Judgment Day 3: Gerard Manley Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” (Podcast)
In this third and last reflection on Judgment Day in poetry,we’ll look at a lesser-known piece by that great poet and priest of the late 19th century, Gerard Manley Hopkins. If you take a quick glance at the poem, which I’ve included below, you might be justified in thinking that it’s lesser-known for a reason, namely, that it’s incomprehensible. Bear with me! It’s a marvelous poem.
I’ve written out some thoughts below, and I discuss them in this short podcast as well (18 minutes), with a bit more elaboration. In my podcast, I also read the poem aloud. You can click here to open the podcast in a new window, or listen with the audio player at the bottom of the post.
One of Hopkins’ achievements in poetry is that he strained at the boundaries of language, striving to evoke, through the sound as well as the sense of words, that which is beyond the capacity of language to bear. A poem like this one is not a narrative; it’s more like a collage of bright images, a mosaic of individual pieces that make a larger picture only when you step back and look at it from a distance. Hopkins also plays with sound, constructing compound words in a way that (deliberately) hearkens back to the rhythms of Old English.
The central philosophical image in this poem is that of Nature as changeable; the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that everything is formed out of the element of fire, and thus is perpetually in flux. In the first two thirds of the poem, Hopkins explores what it means for the natural world, and by extension all of humankind’s activities, to be perpetually subject to change.
It’s a perspective that inevitably leads to darkness and despair (as indeed the materialistic worldview does): if all that we do is “in an enormous dark / Drowned” in the end, what’s the point?
But Hopkins knows that there is more than just matter in motion: he cries “Enough!” and reminds us that the Resurrection of Christ changes everything – because the Resurrection is not just spiritual, but bodily; not a metaphor, but a dynamic reality that Christ experienced and that we too will experience at the Last Day. And so Hopkins’ poem is a joyful response to the coming Judgment Day.
“That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
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 indignation! 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.