Saturday, 4 August 2012

Resurrection: Religious poetry for atheists

It has been a while - life has got in the way of my poetry project. But I have decided to resurrect my blog. In honour of the theme, this will be a post on another Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, this time on the subject of resurrection. I know it's poor form to repeat poets so early on, but this is the best poem I know about resurrection.

Many atheists steer clear of religious poetry, but I think some of the great religious poets, like Hopkins and (late) Donne, say profound things about life, doubt, pain and death which make their verse powerful to believer and unbeliever alike. The title of this poem refers to a 'Heraclitean Fire'. Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher who (as I understand it) thought that fire was the fundamental element, and gave rise to the other elements, and to all things. He wrote that: "The death of fire is the birth of air, and the death of air is the birth of water." Hopkins poem is about the transformations of nature - from air to water to fire - and the transformation of Man through resurrection. For a clear explanation of the poem see here (if you read it and don't understand it).

As discussed in my previous post, Hopkins uses really unusual meter, which here is used to capture the vibrancy and movement of the natural world. He also invents words, which is cool. Like 'firedint', which seems to mean the mark we make on the world - in the end it is nothing, because you can't dint fire; it is in a state of continuous change. Technically, this poem also makes incredible use of commas and lists.

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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest, but many of his poems are about depression and despair. This poem almost perfectly combines his love of nature, his despair at the fleeting nature of man's existence, and his faith. The start of the poem captures the movement and constant change of the natural world. The reference to 'squadroned masks and manmarks' integrates the world of man into the picture of nature - man is not separate from nature nor controlling it, but merely another moment in the transformation of the Heraclitean fire - nature's 'clearent-selved spark'.

Then comes the moment of despair - 'all is in an enormous dark/Drowned. O pity and indig'nation!' None of the marks Man makes on the world will remain - not only does death blot us out, but the 'marks' we leave on the world 'vastness blurs and time beats level'. This entire middle section is a stunning portrayal not only of our fleeting time on earth, but of the smallness of our 'marks' - fame, fortune, poems - in the face of time and the world.

But for Hopkins, the Resurrection of Christ is our hope - 'A heart's clarion'. We can leave the world and nature - 'world's wildfire, leave but ash'. Our physical body returns to nature; grief and dejection also fall away. While I don't believe in Jesus, the resurrection etc, if I did the version I would believe is Hopkins'. Christ, by becoming a man, transforms Man in death, from matchwood to immortal diamond. Christ is also both "Jack, joke, poor potsherd", as well as God and the saviour. And the repetition of 'immortal diamond' is just beautiful.

I love this poem because even though there is despair at its heart (ie in the middle of the poem), there is still so much love and beauty in it - love for nature (full of movement and frenzy and change) and love for Christ (ending in the stillness of the immortal diamond - solid and unchanging forever). Nature and God are both eternal - one eternally changing and one eternally still in the final transformation from Man on Earth to Man in Heaven.

Regardless of whether you believe in the Resurrection and the Life, I believe this poem is a beautiful exploration of the nature of existence and the fear of death; the wildness of nature and the transience of our place in it.


  1. Manley Hopkins was a very fine poet indeed! a fantastic stylist and one who has much to offer us about how to build a poem. To turn around the Christian phrase, it is possible to love the poem, and not the poet.

    I admire the rhythms he sets up and the ruthless way that all is subsumed by this rhythms. I also like the way in which he piles up images one after another. It is always good for a poet, even if they then throw away the poem, to force themselves into rhythmical constraints and then try to extend the use of language.

    As a counterpoint to Manley Hopkins and his religion may I suggest the decadent and pagan Algernon Swinburne.

    Although I may suggest that this line "Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest, but many of his poems are about depression and despair." be changed to read "Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest, but therefore of his poems are about depression and despair."

    My understanding from the bits I have read it that joining the priesthood was a vain attempt to deny his homosexuality.

    1. That's really interesting. I've been reading Hopkins for years but never knew that. I think a post of pagan poetry might be a good follow up...

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