Steps to Recovery: A Heraclitean Fire, an Immortal Diamond – Gerard Manley Hopkins

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.

from That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection

Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1888 (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44397/that-nature-is-a-heraclitean-fire-and-of-the-comfort-of-the-resurrection)

Written in 1888 after an absence from poetry, and cheerful poetry at that, for a few years, this poem of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins offers a literary apologetic, or imaginative apologetic, exploration of the meaning of humanity both before and after its redemption in Christ.

The poem begins with a description of clouds blowing by on a windy, sunny day (‘shivelights’ are rays of sunlight coming through the trees) after a rainstorm

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….

In the middle of line 9, Hopkins shifts his focus to the image of fire – as the incessant change that is life (symbolized here by ‘nature’s bonfire’), as declared by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, implies that man too is transitory (as Heraclitus also observed).

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…

 Man is described as the “bonniest, dearest … clearest-selved spark” of nature.  But at this point, without the consideration of the Resurrection (and it appears to be more that of man than of Jesus’s specific resurrection), he suffers the same extinguishing of the fire of nature in general.  ‘How fast his firedint’ in fact includes a bit of a pun, as the sense of ‘fast’ setting, as in mud, is an allusion to how time and death levels man, i.e. in the grave.

“Manshape … a star, death blots black out” – Hopkins, like 19th and 2oth century existentialists who would follow, ponders the momentousness of death.  Man “shone sheer off” – a bright light, and “disseveral” – not a word a dictionary recognizes, but it seems to refer to humanity as a whole, not just ‘several men’ but ‘Manshape’.  Man is conquered by time and death.

poet1

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.

But the trumpet to awake the heart from its grief and dejection is that of the Resurrection.

The time-bound, flickering fire of man is revived by ‘an eternal beam’ which shines across his otherwise ‘foundering deck.’  Hopkins’s ‘foundering deck’ ultimately is, as Robin Williams character in Dead Poet Society declares, ‘food for worms,’ and burnt ashes.

But instead of fodder and ash, the descent of the eternal (Christ) into the form of humanity lends an eternal persistence and dignity to man, who is otherwise a Jack , a joke, an empty shard of pottery, a patch (or ground?),, and matchwood to be spent in a short, temporal flame.

Hopkins instead declares man to transcend such descriptions of his mortal coil, and is instead “immortal diamond.”  Immortality is due to his becoming “all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am.” And the diamond imagery brings in the idea of something that can reflect and sparkles with an eternal light that shines on and through it; the diamond also is itself an enduring gem of value, a ‘clear’ distinction from the fragment of pottery and short-lived matchwood man is without the Resurrection.

Hopkins thus has effectively conveyed the transformation of grieving, joyless and dejected mankind to the form of Christ and enduring, eternal worth. The image of the flickering flame is replaced by that of a brilliant diamond.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s