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Analysis of Poem "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins and a Summary of That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire

"That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection" is a classic sprung rhythm poem focusing on the dynamic cycles of the natural world as chaos and flux from which Hopkins and the whole world, everyone, will escape in the apocalyptic return of Christ.

Basically, the message is: The natural world, of which I am the finest product, is full of conflict and tension and will end in fire. The apocalypse is coming, I'm heading for redemption and resurrection. I'll be like a diamond, in Christ.

It reflects the move from pre-Socratic thinking, where the world order eventually burns itself out, to hope in an afterlife based on Christian consolation.

This poem, a caudate sonnet, one of the last major poems of Hopkins, opens with the ideas of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher (535–475 BCE). He believed the natural world to be in a constant state of flux, a process ever-changing but governed by the Logos, which unified opposites to produce stability.

Hopkins then moves on to the Christian notion of resurrection and redemption. Here is a basic summary:

  • In lines 1–16 (the problem), there is detailed description of the elements of the natural world and the process of their interactions. So air, water, fire and earth feature, as well as light and dark. Humanity, the 'clearest-selved spark/Man is an integral part of this all-engaging activity.
  • In lines 16–24 (the resolution), Hopkins turns to the Christian idea of resurrection and redemption as the ultimate answer. For him, only the apocalypse works—only Christ alone can bring order out of chaos, purification because he is the eternal beam, of light.
  • On a personal level, Hopkins is summing up his approach to the end of his creative life, following the many odes and the Sonnets of Desolation, so-called. The natural world will be saved, along with all humanity. So in line 22: I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am...

It is a challenging poem for the reader because many of the lines are packed with unusual words and syllabic combinations metrically positioned to produce both texture and sharp, strong phonetic elaboration.

In addition, rising rhythms are produced by the various stresses which Hopkins carefully worked out with regards to timing and breath—his own unique form of metre which he named sprung rhythm.

Hopkins wrote in a letter to Richard Watson Dixon:

"I should add that the word Sprung which I use for this rhythm means something like abrupt and applies by rights only where one stress follows another running, without syllable between."

It's not everyone's idea of what poetry should aspire to, and many think his complicated sprung rhythms a step too far beyond the pale. But Hopkins used this rhythm to help build his poems into aesthetically textured soundscapes. As he explains in a letter of February 1879:

"But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry."

There's certainly a rich and engaging experience to be had once the lines are read through if possible, several times. They require the mind and tongue to engage fully with the word, in particular, the consonants and stressed long and short vowels involved in the sprung rhythm parts.

Enjambment too plays a role, where end lines are not punctuated and the reader is encouraged to run on straight into the next line, thus building momentum.

Hopkins seemed pleased with the result and wrote to friend Robert Bridges in August 1888:

"Lately I sent you a sonnet on the Heraclitean Fire, in which a great deal of early Greek philosophical thought was distilled; but the liquor of the distillation did not taste very greek, did it?"

It was to be the last great poem by the Jesuit priest. Gerard Manley Hopkins passed away on 8th June 1889, in Dublin, Ireland, aged 44, having become ill with rheumatic fever.

His friend Robert Bridges subsequently gathered the notebooks and papers and gradually had Hopkins's work published, first in several anthologies then culminating in the 1918 book Poems, published by Humphrey Milford in London. This has become an iconic volume, being the one that ignited interest in the work of this most eccentric of modern poets.

Structure of "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire": A Caudate Sonnet

Hopkins called this poem a sonnet but it does not follow the traditional 14-line rule, split into octet and sestet, Petrarchan form, at all. It has been expanded considerably, but why?

In a nutshell, Hopkins had too much to say—content had to be squeezed into a sonnet form somehow but 14 lines was never going to be sufficient. Hopkins used the caudate sonnet, one with extra lines (codas) and increased syllabic content.

In most sonnets, the initial eight lines form an argument or create a problem, the remaining six lines turn the argument, answer it, so providing a solution. Most sonnets have this definite turn or volta at line 9.

Not so with this sonnet. The turn occurs in line 16 with the word Enough!

This has 24 lines and is best read with four sections in mind:

  • Lines 1–9

The argument or initial premise runs on into line 9/16. Deals with the elements and earth.

  • Lines 10–16

It continues with Man, how humans are also subject to the effects of time and space - to half way across line 16.

  • Lines 16–19

The turn. Starts with the emphatic Enough!....and ends half way across line 19. The Resurrection occurs, saving Hopkins and everyone. Hope reigns. This is the first coda mentioned by Hopkins in a letter to Robert Bridges.

  • Lines 19–24

The second coda brings cleansing and rebirth as Hopkins unites with Christ, or becomes Christ.

Hopkins wrote in a letter to Robert Bridges saying that he had penned a new sonnet of:

“sprung rhythm, with many outrides and hurried feet: sonnet with two [sic] codas.”

Note that Bridges and others thought that Hopkins had made a mistake when he wrote sonnet with two [sic] codas but he had not. Some still think the poem has three codas but, if you read through the poem it is clear that Hopkins knew what he was writing about.

Hopkins piled on the syllables in this poem—many lines are 15 syllables or more and the second line has 20—so much for the reader to get their teeth into.

Explanation of Words

Line 1 - puffball (a roundish fungi) chevy (to race or scamper)

Line 2 - roysterers (a roysterer is someone who revels, a merrymaker)

Line 3 - roughcast (a mix of lime and gravel covering for a wall)

Line 3 - whitewash ( thin coat of white paint for a wall or building)

Line 4 - shivelights (splintered, slivers of light)

Line 4 - shadowtackle (shadow shapes resembling ropes, gear, rigging)

Line 6 - yestertempest's (coined by the poet... one period prior to present, the last tempest)

Line 6 - rut peel parches ( the dry peel-like ruts as when a wheel goes through mud)

Line 7 - stanches (stop a liquid's flow) starches(make stiff or rigid)

Line 8 - manmarks (human activity) treadmire (treadmill, tiresome trudge)

Line 9 - Footfretted (worrisome) Million fueled (many things feeding the fire)

Line 10 - bonniest (finest, best)

Line 11 - firedint (spirited work) mark on mind (memory)

Line 14 - sheer off (separated abruptly) disseveral (unique?)

Line 17 - heart's-clarion (heart's narrow trumpet, heart's call)

Line 18 - foundering deck (deck of a ship water-filled and sinking)

Line 23 - Jack (common man) poor potsherd (cheap crock, or pot of clay)

Line 23 - patch (fool or clown) matchwood (match stick for lighting a fire)

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


Line-by-Line Analysis of 'That Nature'

This is not a straightforward sonnet at all. No neat 10-syllable lines here, no plodding iambic pentameter lines. Hopkins stretches the definition of a sonnet to its limit and fills many lines with lots of syllables, alliterative combinations and compound words.

Note that the longer lines have a caesura marked, (I) which divides the feet but is not necessarily a pause when reading through.

Lines 1 and 2

The poem starts with a unique description of a cloudscape. Hopkins uses his characteristic alliteration and compound words to build up the image of a poetic sky on the march.

This is a dynamic movement. Picture lots of white or off-white clouds of various shapes being blown across the sky. Then look a bit longer and deeper—Hopkins uses words such as torn, tossed and flaunt to give added energy and roughness.

These clouds have a bright edge, a jaunty togetherness as they throng. Note the slight change in language in the second line...roysterers (merry-makers), gay and glitter. Gay in this context means jolly, upbeat.

Lines 3 and 4

The speaker now moves from the sky, from the air, down to the earth and introduces roughcast and whitewash, surfaces for walls and buildings. On these surfaces are shadows from an elm, special shapes Hopkins invents words for . . . shivelights and shadowtackle . . . so splintery light and shadows resembling those of ropes and gear on a ship for example.

Again there is plentiful alliteration—with repeated sh and l—and assonance with the vowel a prominent.

Lines 5–9

The first four lines are about clouds and shadow, these next four are about the wind and earth following a storm.

Line 5 starts off with an adverb containing the word light before moving on to the effects of a boisterous wind, and how it dynamically smooths out the creased earth. The alliterative words are again in evidence, adding to the abrupt feel of certain parts of a line.

The wind continues to parch squandering ooze, changing it into crusty dough and ultimately, dust. In the oozy mud are marks, manmarks, which resemble squadroned masks, so the wind affects all, from the earth to humans.

There is a short summing up of these processes in the natural world—the bonfire burning on, million-fueled. This is the fourth element, fire, after air, water and earth.

Here is Hopkins at his best, using dense and invented language to concisely bring texture and challenge for the reader. His idea was that poetry reflected the working of God, even in such mundane things as squelchy mud.

Note the difference in line endings in 5–9. Four lines are enjambed (no end punctuation) so the reader is encouraged to read on into the next line, maintaining the sense, not really pausing. This is certainly reflective of the wind and its working.

Lines 10–16

We move on from the elements to humanity itself, her clearest-selved spark /Man. This is also the first mention of Nature as a female, her, occurring three times, which contrasts obviously the Man, the male, in a sort of elemental marriage.

Life is short and humans, being part of the natural world, in the process, essentially are doomed, as is Mother Nature. For all the unique qualities of the human species, the immensity of things, alongside time itself, will eventually do away with all.

The alliteration eases off in certain places, enjambed line endings return, meaning becomes a little clearer—nature is bound to go, humans and all.

Lines 16–24

That single word Enough! is the turn or volta in this sonnet. Here everything changes. Hopkins is shouting. Halfway through line 16 the resurrection occurs, hope is restored, gone the doom of the burning natural world.

The first of two codas instills hope and transformation. Depression goes, flesh and all things trashy fall to the worm (the devil) as the trumpet sounds and the speaker, Hopkins, becomes Christ, owing to the fact that Christ was a man, albeit God in flesh, blood of the blood.

There is light, in the light the newly formed diamond. Gone is the common man, the ordinary Jack, jack, the mortal. Instead, there is the immortal diamond, which can never die or fade.

So these last several lines combine the idea of redemption and the end of the world as it turns to ash. The alliteration is still to be found, but note the repetition of the phoneme sh in the words Resurrection, dejection, shone, trash, ash, crash, flash....but Hopkins took great care to mix these with contrasting vowels and consonants to produce a highly enigmatic, rich-sounding poem.

What Is the Metre?

This poem has an unorthodox metrical pattern and needs careful scanning because of the sprung rhythm Hopkins employed. It has a basic hexameter beat, six feet, in the majority of lines. There are shorter tetrameter, iambic lines in the latter part of the poem.

Sprung rhythm isn't at all straightforward to analyse—traditional methods of scanning are a challenge to apply because the 2, 3 or 4 syllable feet can't be used to affirm metre.

Hopkins wrote that this poem "had many outrides and hurried feet" which basically means that many syllables were not a part of the scansion. Once the principal stress-beat was known some syllables following were simply extra weak stresses.

Hopkins called these outrides or hangers. Presumably, the hurried feet are single-syllable words given less emphasis by the reader. For the poet a single stressed syllable could be a foot, as well as a trochee (xu), dactyl (xuu) and first paeon (xuuu) where x=stress, u=no stress.

To understand a bit more let's take two lines and scan them. Line 2:

built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ¦ they throng; they glitter in marches.

In an exceptional line of 20 syllables, there are according to some scholars six stress beats, making this a hexameter. It seems that, for this to be so, the weaker positions of built/heaven/in do not count or are ignored. In similar fashion, they is likewise ignored.

And line 15:

Is any of him at all so stark

This appears to be iambic and anapaestic.

Hopkins was very particular about the reading of his poems and often placed stress marks where he wanted the reader to emphasize the beat. It seems he broke with the conventions of scanning in order to reach a perfected state of expression—he felt his poems were divinely inspired so needed the reader to purge the impurities of ordinary speech by following his instructive stress marking.

Gerard Manley Hopkins in Dublin

As a Jesuit priest, Hopkins was a committed member of the Catholic church, a teacher and preacher, well aware of his role as an evangelical Christian. In his lifetime, few colleagues knew of his poetic endeavours, but it was through his poems that he refined and expressed his true religious feelings.

Some scholars think "That Nature" came about due to Hopkins being unhappy whilst living in Dublin, Ireland. It is known that he suffered from depression now and again and was throughout his life susceptible to illness.

Following the so-called Sonnets of Desolation, more personal work reflecting on his spiritual state of being, written in Dublin possibly in the years 1885–86, Hopkins must have wanted to sum up his existential stance regarding the ultimate 'goal' of his priesthood—redemption.

Jill Muller offers a psychological perspective:

“depressed and isolated, Hopkins became increasingly preoccupied with Catholic teachings about death and the afterlife; thus, his use of eschatological imagery to describe feelings of claustrophobic solipsism and rejection by God”

Muller, Jill. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding. New York: Routledge, 2003.

No doubting Hopkins retained his deep faith in the life and teachings of Christ, but whilst in Dublin there is also the fact that he didn't relish work at University College. He knew few people and was subject to dark inner moods.

Here is an extract from a recent article in the Irish Times:

"The university itself was a sorry institution, operating out of a rat-infested building on the south side of St Stephen’s Green, bereft of books because the committee that gave the place to the Jesuits decided they wouldn’t need a library. Although he took his responsibilities seriously, Hopkins was a terrible teacher with no ability to control unruly students. When those students found out that the funny little man trying to teach them Latin and Greek was an English conservative with an Oxford accent and hopelessly hostile views on Home Rule, they made themselves as unruly as possible." -Simon Edge, author, Irish Times, May 2017

Rhyme Scheme of "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire"

The rhyme scheme of this poem is as follows:

abba abba cdc dcd dee cff fgg g

Let's go through the line endings:

abba : air/marches/arches/pair

abba : bare/parches/starches/there

cdc : on/spark/gone

dcd : dark/shone/mark

dee : stark/Resurrection/dejection

cff : shone/trash/ash

fgg : crash/and/diamond

g : diamond

Most of the rhymes are full, for example, on/gone/shone and so on. Some analysts link these rhymes with the half-rhyme of Resurrection/dejection. Note the repetitive rhyme at the end of the poem. I have included and as full rhyme with diamond.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Andrew Spacey