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

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Because it deals with the eternal philosophical problem of the one and the many—the one species embodied in many individuals—the poem is characterized by plurals and collectives in lines 1-9 and by “man” and “he” in lines 10-16; these are the two sides of the coin of nature. The poem’s version of Heraclitean nature, however, is not philosophical so much as phenomenological or experiential. It fits very well with the experience of the nineteenth century, which had cast off the earlier mechanistic models of the universe and favored instead organic, vital models. These often took a developmental form; but like most religions, Catholicism at that time was very wary of Darwinism, so Hopkins turned to this Greek philosopher, whose process was cyclic, not evolutionary.

If all individual material beings exist only temporarily, then nothing in the material world possesses permanent validity or authenticity; thus, only if human bodies become eternal can meaning be intrinsic to the material world. Mere belief in the survival of a spiritual soul leaves the material world absurd. By affirming Christ’s resurrection as a pattern for his own, Hopkins creates a theology of history and can acquiesce in death as the necessary precondition for a rebirth to a diamondlike permanence.