A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Poem of the Day: Gerard Manley Hopkins

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 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. 
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Like Dylan Thomas or E.E. Cummings (though he's greater than either of them), Hopkins was sui generis, a poet better left unimitated. All that stuff about "inscape" and "instress" and "sprung rhythm" remains his and his alone, and no matter how hard I try, I can't make them work for me. That caesura ( | ) he marked in this poem, for example. It's Hopkins imitating Anglo-Saxon poetry, but I don't really sense it when I read the poem. But it doesn't really matter.

Your first reading of one of his poems is a paraphrase: Nature is in flux, mutable, like clouds and wind and fire. Human beings are in flux, too, and no matter how brilliant our lives, we die. But at the Resurrection we become immortal. On your second reading you pick through all the unfamiliar and sometimes cobbled-together words (chevy, shivelight, shadowtackle, footfretted, firedint), knowing that Hopkins loved Anglo-Saxon roots, to try to wrest some sense out of them. (Even if you don't succeed, don't worry about it. Make up your own meaning if you have to: Hopkins did.) 

But the third reading is the best, because you can start to relax and listen to the sounds and go with the flow and begin, however faintly, to sense the ecstatic experience that Hopkins went through writing it. Even if you don't believe what he's saying (I don't), you believe that he believed it. And for a poet that's enough.   

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