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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Number 135: Gerard Manley Hopkins "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection"

That Nature is a Heraclitan 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 in 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.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hap Notes: First of all, the division of the stanza is my own. I am not presuming to change Hopkins, I just wanted to make each extraordinary passage readable. It's a lot to take in and I thought it would help to space out the poem. Then, when you see it in its more compressed form, you'll not be overwhelmed with the cascades of words pouring out of these verses. I have left his accent marks but not his "dividings"- I thought if you've never read the poem that would be enough to take in.

Happy Easter, by the by. Actually, I suppose you could boil this poem down to that greeting if you so chose. There's a lot more in it, though. Let's get to it.

First off, the title. Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher (often called the "weeping" or melancholy philosopher.) In typical presocratic (before Socrates) form, he was concerned with the nature of things: where does stuff come from and how is it made? Heraclitus said that the world is always in flux, always changing. He's one of the guys who said "You can't step into the same river twice," i.e. it's always different, ever changing, or as he said "All things move and nothing remains still." Heraclitus said that the basic ruling principle of life was fire and that everything was in a sort of opposite harmony; "The death of fire is the birth of air, and the death of air is the birth of water." He thought that fire was the most fundamental element in this always changing universe, earth and life.

Now, Hopkins probably agrees with Heraclitus that all things have a unique and changing character and the title of the poem tells us exactly what he is trying to say. That is, in this constant flux and change, this life of quick sparked life and then darkness, the coming of Christ changes all this. The resurrection of Jesus is the element that changes this cycle to one of redemption from the constant grind.

Let's get a little vocabulary out of the way and then I'm bound to gush a bit about the poem (spoiler alert- ha!)

"chevy" means to run quickly (more or less)

"gay" of course, means festively happy (I'm sure you know this was written in the late 1800s- the word had nothing to do with sex- probably quite literally- Victorians, you know.)

A "shive" is a slice and the
shadow "tackle" he's probably referring to is the tackle on a boat- the weighs and pulleys. So what he's saying is that the clouds are obscuring and then moving aside to let the sun shine through. This is happening pretty rapidly and it's breathtaking to look at as well as sort of illustrating Heraclitus' principle of flux.

Then he's saying that the wind (a pretty rowdy one) is drying up the puddles from a rain that happened the day before, drying out the thick ooze of mud (marked by man with wheel marks and footprints) into a dusty, dry crust.

So, he says, the ever-changing fire burns on....

He says man is one of the sparks of this fire and nature dotes on him but yet, how quickly his fire burns out ( his "firedint"- his spark of effort) and all is cast into dull and empty darkness. (They didn't call Heraclitus the "weeping philosopher for nothin'.)

Disseveral means to separate into parts. He's saying everything goes back into the fire, everything becomes level again. There is no individual, only the parts that make up the "fire," everything becomes a blur of nothingness again.


Christ's resurrection changes all this. The residuary (who get the remainder of) worm gets leftovers and the fire is but ash now because through Jesus is redemption from this "cycle" of Heraclitus.

Then Hopkins writes one of the best descriptions of a human (and Jesus who "became" human) ever written- this "Jack" (so many "Jacks" to pick from "everyman Jack, Jack-a-napes, Jackass, Jack-a-Lent (a small handpuppet used at lent) and there's more, I'm sure), a potsherd is a piece of broken pottery.

So Hopkins is saying, Christ, becoming man (with all his characteristics), saves us from the "fire" of life through the resurrection and we become, as he did- immortal diamond. Diamond that has been formed from coal through the heat of fire and the pressures of life.

I suppose I don't have to mention how breathtaking this is to read aloud, do I? Or how moving?

The picture today at the masthead is from one of Hopkin's journals where he is drawing the clouds and a photo to illustrate somewhat the fast moving clouds he of which he speaks.

Here's another nice quote of Hopkins:"No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I have not escaped."

(Once again, 1880-"queer" means strange or odd...knew that, right?)

Here's where we've talked of Hopkins before:



1 comment:

  1. Hi Hap - I know this is an old post, but just to let you know I referred to your post in a post I did on this poem: