Original article posted by firefighter:
In “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” Gerard Manley Hopkins superimposes his belief in a resurrection over the Greek Philosopher Heraclites’s concept that fire is the common universal element for various reasons. The “terrible sonnets,” of which this work is a part, were written at a time of desperation and depression in Hopkin’s life. Celibate (and thought by some to be a non-practicing homosexual), Hopkins forewent sexual relations with others in his pursuit of cleanliness. His ministries had included exposure to slums, delinquents, and other environments with which he had little familiarity and wherein he had little success as a priest. Living in a foreign land, estranged by his family, entirely unpublished as a poet and not highly successful as a priest, Hopkins crafted the “terrible sonnets.” Though they are notorious for their dreary and hopeless style, this is a poem whose codas emit great hope. Through the diction used in the poem, it is clear that Hopkins compares both mankind as a whole, and most likely himself spiritually and himself temporally to a Heraclitean fire, and therefore the hope for the resurrection that rings in the poem’s unusual dual-coda is multifaceted. Through the imagery of fire, trees and diamonds, it is clear that in “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the comfort of the Resurrection” Gerald Hopkins finds comfort in the resurrection because it will minimize his personal failures, allow him to eventually become like Christ, and ultimately aggrandize mankind as a whole.
The opening lines of the poem display the catastrophic nature of the perpetual motion of the human race using the imagery of an elm’s dissemination. Hopkins describes the descent of elm seeds in the following manner: “Cloud-puffball, torn tuffs, tossed pillows flaunt forth, the 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. . .” (Longman, 1685) This imagery illustrates Hopkin’s view of the never ending flow of nature. He sees it as a rallying forth of semi-celestial, white bodies. His calling them “heaven-roysterers” implies that humans are heavenly, but that simultaneously they are unrestrained merrymakers who in “gay-gangs” simply descend in glittering processions. Illuminating as well is Hopkin’s description of this merrymaking occurring on an “air-built thoroughfare.” While “thoroughfare” might simply imply a route by which elm seeds might have passed to the ground for generations, for example, it also implies the world as a whole. In this way, Hopkins describes all human beings as descending in “dazzling whitewash” through the thoroughfare that is this world: the passage way from death to heaven. This imagery of nature exemplifies Hopkin’s view of man as being both frivolous–overly jolly–but also celestial and made by God.
With imagery of a pair of lights or seeds lancing Hopkins, it is highly likely, describes his own sexual tensions and his views of sexuality within the human race. Loaded with personal imagery such as this, the poem describes, as previously mentioned, the human race proceeding forth like the spawn of an elm, after which he says that where the elm is, “Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance and pair.” At this point one wonders where his pair is. Entirely celibate, he describes the paring off of the spawn of the elm with words like lancing and lashings, accentuating his higher post of abstinence. The imagery also indicates that he views sexual or romantic relations as inherently degrading, and as something that pares part of the dignity of humanity. This idea is further exposed in line 13 of the poem where he simply exclaims “O pity and indig ‘ nation.” The word indignation is deliberately split in the natural sequence of the poem. The first morpheme “indig” conveys unworthiness or unrighteousness and the second morpheme “nation” refers again to mankind as a whole. Together they refer to God’s anger.
The wind beating all marks in the ground to nothing and the disappearing of a firedint, demonstrate Hopkin’s view of and frustration with the lack of import in his own work. He describes that “Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare of yestertemper’s creases. . .” In other words, all marks made in earth by the falling of “cloud-puffballs” and “torn tufts” are eventually totally obliterated. The fact that he imagines the wind’s role in this process as performed delightfully exemplifies Hopkin’s contempt toward his lack of significance as a poet and priest. All marks he (or any other human) makes in the grand ground of earth are destroyed by the whims of wind. Additionally, Hopkins speaks of the bonfire that “Million-fueled. . .burns on.” He then says “But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selved spark/ Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!” Human kind has gone from falling seeds to the clearest sparks of the fire of nature. However, the dint a man’s flame makes in the entire fire of humanity and nature is minimal. In awe Hopkins observes how quickly “his mark on mind” will disappear. These images demonstrate well the frustration that Hopkins feels within the human race and the sorrow he fe\]els in his insignificance.
All of the dismal imagery of Hopkin’s poem is redeemed in the double sextets of resolution in this abnormal mix of Italian and Shakespearean sonnet. In the first sextet Hopkins exclaims “Enough! the resurrection,/ a heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s grasping, joyless days, dejection.” His description of the maladies of man and of his own life is seemingly interrupted by vision of the resurrection. This vision is superimposed directly onto the concept of the Heraclitean fire, and though they are inherently contradictory concepts, Hopkins is able to juxtapose them in a fashion that facilitates understanding. Though the Heraclitean fire of humanity exists and is in fact quite daunting, he is saying that a hope for the resurrection is still valid and in fact will alleviate “grief’s grasping” and dejection. Because this concept concludes the initial sextet, this should technically finalize the poem according the petrarchan sonnet style. However, this imagery was evidently not sufficient to counterbalance the level of chaos of the first fourteen lines, and so Hopkins implements a second sextet which further accentuates the revival brought forth by resurrection.
The final sextet of the poem demonstrates perfectly the cycle of fire transforming to ash, which then transforms to diamond, and Hopkins uses this concept to imply that we and he will eventually become like Christ. The first three lines of the second sextet speak of the disintegration of flesh and the ultimate fizzling out to ash that fire eventually induces. This dimming of the Heracltitean fire is in no way anticlimactic however. In fact, it precedes something more glorious than the fire itself. Hopkins says “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.” He becomes what Christ is at the crash of a trumpet only after he becomes ash, and he can only become ash through the Heraclitean fire that is this world. Even his reference to himself being matchwood implies that he is coal, by which diamonds are made. The last words of the poem are this, “immortal diamond,/ Is immortal diamond.” The first immortal diamond refers to himself, as it follows the sequence of self-descriptions like Jack, joke, and poor potsherd. Careful reading also renders the fact that the two immortal diamonds are distinctly separated by a comma. The phrase “Is immortal diamond” to refer the immortal diamond that is Christ is quite intentional. Being familiar with scripture, Hopkins was aware that the Christ refers to himself repeatedly as the “I am” which means Jehovah. By this means he separates the concepts of Christ as an immortal diamond and himself as an immortal diamond, thus portraying his final conclusion that despite the invalidity of his human works, through the resurrection he will, like Christ, become immortal and is therefore worthy.
The poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” is very complex in style, diction and is packed with imagery. Gerald Hopkins uses these devices well to both describe accurately the Heraclitean fire that is the human race and nature, and also to give reason why, even in light of this, mankind and he himself can have hope in the resurrection.