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

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

“That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” is a sonnet in accentual hexameter with three codas of two and a half lines plus one final half-line. The cumbersome title names the first and last of the three topics the sonnet treats; the grammatical structure of the title—a noun clause plus a prepositional phrase—suggests the lack of parallelism of the two topics named. The clause “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” refers to a vision of nature through the eyes of the fifth century b.c.e. Greek cosmological philosopher Heraclitus, for whom process was the fundamental fact of the cosmos and fire was the fundamental symbol or element; this topic occupies the first nine lines. The phrase “of the comfort of the Resurrection” refers to an article of Christian faith, the reunion after death of Christ’s physical body and human soul comprehended as a model for the eventual resurrection of each believer; this topic occupies the final lines, from lines 16 to 24. The unnamed topic is the individual human’s death.

The first section bulges beyond the Petrarchan or Italian octave (the abba, abba rhyme scheme of the first eight lines) into the ninth line. It presents a picture of the summer cycle of rainstorms and drying out of the landscape (the poem was written in Ireland on a late July day in 1888). The first four lines might present the thunderstorm itself—the different shapes of clouds moving together (“throng”), the lightning (“glitter”), the warlike array (“marches”), the rain (“roughcastdazzling whitewashShivelights and shadowtackle”). If the lines describe the sun drying the landscape the next day, however, the glittering is that of sun on the clouds, and the “Shivelights and shadowtackle” are a pattern of sun-daggers and ship’s rigging on dark (“roughcast”) and bright (“whitewash”) walls alike—or is that another picture of the dark and bright sides of clouds? Lines 5-9 describe the warm wind drying the sodden earth, the puddles and wheel-tracks turning from ooze to dough, from crust to dust. Humanity makes a late impact in this section, for some unseen workmen have left their footprints in the mud during and after the rain. As the fire-driven cosmos destroys and re-creates itself over and over, all the species are transfinite in time. When any particular component of the total pattern is lost through struggle and metamorphosis, it is replaced in due course with a suitable equivalent.

The second section, lines 10-16, contrasts logically with the cyclic opening. A person is utterly unique, he or she has no equivalent, and therefore no other person can serve as a replacement. Each sacred human spark of the Heraclitean fire is “selvéd”—self-possessed—as no individual entity in any other species can be; so when a spark goes out, the loss is irreparable.

The third and final section of the poem does not follow rationally from the natural experience of the first fifteen and a half lines. As the sonnet’s form surprises the reader with line 15 on, so its content in this last section leaps into being nonlogically, by faith. Speaking for himself and for every believer, Gerard Manley Hopkins asserts the eschatological transformation into immortality of the mortal side of Christ and humans (1 Corinthians 15).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

The poem exemplifies Hopkins’s experimentation with sonnet form; John Milton’s “On the New Forcers of Conscience” provided a model for the codas. Heraclitus said that the basic world element, fire, moved out from the sun and condensed successively into air and water; then half the water thickened into earth and half rarefied into smoke, fiery stormclouds, waterspouts, and souls. The half that had become earth thinned into sea and air, and everything ultimately returned to the sun. The world was thus a steady-state cosmos in which “the way up and the way down are one and the same.”

The key images in lines 1-9 are therefore those that combine two of the four elements—“bright wind” (fire and air), clouds (air and water), and “oozedough, crust, dust” (water, in lessening quantities, mixed with earth). Man finally appears only to realize that the Heraclitean bonfire is his “bone” fire, his funeral pyre. The sonnet’s octave-plus-one-line, which describes a world of species, employs a large number of plural and collective nouns.

The word “But” (line 10) is the volta (Italian for “turn”) that moves the poem from the world of species to the world of individual humans, where “he”—man in the sense of a man, not the species man—becomes central. Heraclitus tags along for a few more lines, for he was among the first people to become even slightly aware of the individual as such, separated from the communal matrix. The human spark of the bonfire is the only being in the cosmos capable of grasping the world’s order, intelligibility, and beauty, noted Heraclitus: “Most men do not comprehend the things they happen upon, nor do they understand what they have experienced, though they seem to themselves [to do so].” All too soon, time beats man level (as the wind beats the “masks and manmarks” of line 14 into dust), and “his firedint [flint striking steel], his mark on mind” are soon gone.

The second transition is more a salto—less a turn than a leap to a totally new and unexpected level: “Enough!” The shipwreck image of “foundering deck” picks up from earlier words such as “shadowtackle” (line 4), “ropes” (line 5), and “drowned” (line 13), and it may contain a faint but lovely echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, lines 5-8. The reader should note the auditory (“clariontrumpet-crash”) and visual (“beaconbeam”) images that announce the presence of the risen Christ in the poem. One may also wish to read the “eternal beam” (line 19) as the horizontal beam of Jesus’ cross, the only effective negative to the transfinite (and ultimately idiotic) up-is-the-same-as-down churning of the Heraclitean funeral pyre, where the individuals burn so their species may live. Flesh and mortality are then remanded to the “residuary worm”; many medieval wills bequeathed “my soul to God and my body to the worms.”

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