Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Out of the Fire and Into the Light

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 in 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.

GM Hopkins, That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

 Reflection – Another great poem from another great poet. If, as I said yesterday, I am a poetry geek, I am a Gerard Manley Hopkins uber-geek. Love the man.

He can be a difficult read, mind you, and this is a good example of that. This particular poem is in particular an Easter poem, as the title suggests. One can get a bit hung up in the verbiage, mind you, and lose the plot of it. Something about clouds, something about dough and crust (is he writing about pie? Now I’m all hungry…), then a residuary worm (whatever that is), and then Christ shows up and there’s something something something immortal diamond. Ummm… OK? I want some pie.

Well, let Fr. Denis explain it all for you. (Not really – ‘explaining’ a poem is one of the mortal sins of literature). What is this ‘heraclitean fire’ of the title? Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, who held that all of being was in a state of constant flux. Nothing stays the same; nothing abides through all the changes of nature. ‘You cannot cross the same river twice’ is the Heraclitean maxim, since the water of the river is different each time.

Hopkins first rejoices in the splendor of this Heraclitean fire, this pageant of unending change in nature, the roystering of the clouds, the endless variation of rain and sun, the glittering and gushing and run of water, the constant saturation of the earth and its drying up, the shaping and reshaping of all the natural order all around us—nature’s bonfire burns on.

But we do not rejoice quite so much when we see this Heraclitean fire burning up that one part of nature most dear to us—the human person, the mind and heart and soul of man himself caught up in transience and brought to an ‘enormous dark drowned.’ We rejoice in the pageant of nature and its seasons and moods, but ‘o pity and indignation’ when those seasons drag us down, when ‘time beats level’ the human person.

This bugs us, which is an interesting argument against atheistic materialism. Since it is the plain nature of everything to come in and go out of existence, to be born, to live, and to die… why does the prospect of human death bother us so much? How on earth did we randomly evolve in such a way that we rebel against the plain natural heraclitean order of things? Why do we say ‘Enough!’ to death which rules all material being, if we are not something besides a material being? How would we even think of such a thing?

At any rate, the poem takes this great muscular leap towards faith in Christ, in the resurrection, to there being something that happens after death and the residuary worm has its go at us. There is a flash, a crash, a trumpet and something shines forth, something not subject to the heraclitean tyranny of fire and destruction. Death presses us down, pushes us deeper and deeper into the earth, into the very pit of natural oblivion… and up rises the immortal diamond from the bowels of the earth—Christ, acting in us, making us what we are not since He became what He was not, the great hope and joy of humanity, the answer to the ‘Enough!’ of our objection to death.

The great thing is that God shares that objection with us, and has acted to carry us out of the fire and into the light, and that is the hope of Easter and its promise. (But I do still want some pie...)


  1. Fr. Denis,

    Thanks for the poetry these past few days. Thanks especially for the explanation (and I don't balk at using that word) of the Hopkins poem. I love poetry, too, but I find that I usually need someone to lead me through it.

    1. Thanks, Neil. Truth be told, doing these poetry posts makes me realize that, if my life had not gone in the direction it went religion and God wise (thanks be to God it did) I probably would have become an English teacher or something. It really is 'my thing,' even more than philosophy and theology. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Hi Father Denis,

    Wow how lovely. I stumbled quite providentially into your blog today while perusing Google. Quite amazing that, because I wasn't looking for poetry at all but also happen to be a big poetry-geek and also a former guest of Madonna House back in 2009 and a graduate of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. I wanted to ask you surely as a "Hopkins uber-geek" you would be acquainted with the novel Exiles by Ron Hansen wouldn't you? If you haven't read it you really must its a lovely novel. Anyways if I'm in Combermere anytime soon I'd love to stop by for a visit. God bless!

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. I think I remember you from 2009, and know that I would certainly do so if I saw your face. I tried to read Hansen's book a few years ago, but it didn't grab me at that time. I enjoyed his novel 'Marietta in Ecstasy' very much, so I know I would enjoy Exiles - have to try it again.
      Yes, come on by if you're in the area, and we'll have a good jaw about poetry, Hopkins or whatever!


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