That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

Article Detail

Friday 9 March 2012
Ron Brownson

http://assets.aucklandartgallery.com/assets/media/blog-heraclitean-fire.jpg

 

Of all the British poets of the Victorian period, only Gerard Manley Hopkins appears to write modern poetry. F.R. Leavis considered Hopkins the greatest Victorian poet. His relatively small output of poems does not diminish the stature of his achievement at all. I have read his poetry since I was 14 and it never fails to energise me. It is, I reckon, still shockingly inventive with its portmanteau words and sprung rhythms.

Heraclitus lived around 500 BCE and was a philosopher who considered that everything was created by fire and constantly in states of change and growth. Such apocalyptic thinking was visionary fuel for Hopkins, for whom the practice of the Roman Catholic faith was a commitment to spiritual transformation.

Hopkins was the closest English writer to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau’s transcendental commitment to the existential influence of nature. He called this knowledge ‘inscape’. Everything in nature was separate from all other things yet totally intertwined by a cosmological weaving together.

Looking at the Vincent van Gogh painting of the landscape currently on loan to the Gallery from the National Gallery of Scotland, I thought that there is a vein shared between van Gogh and Hopkins that cherishes nature through a vision of its own self-transformation.

Here is one of Hopkins’s last poems from 1888.

That Nature is a Heraclitean 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 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. 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