Saturday, March 7, 2015

How fast his firedint is gone - Hopkins, Heraclitus, and the residuary worm

Gerard Manley Hopkins is, in a letter from 1880, asking a friend what he thinks of Wagner:

This is a barbarous business of greatest this and supreme that that Swinburne and others practice.  What is the thing that has been?  The same that shall be.  Everything is vanity and vexation of spirit.  (Penguin, p. 194)

Hopkins was a wise man.  Many echo Ecclesiastes but few mean it.  Hopkins had an answer to this problem, the one I would expect, as evident in the title of this 1888 sonnet-plus:

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.

Heraclites reduced all things to fire.  Water is fire; clouds are fire.  Hopkins is turning to a Classical source to find remind himself that all is vanity.

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!

The editor tells me that “parches” are “flat cakes of mud from wheels, etc.” – never would have guessed that.  The imaginative paradox is bold here, with nature’s fire demonstrated by a rainstorm, by mud, air, water, and earth.  Man is the center of Nature, her “dearest,” yet he too is just a spark, soon extinguished.

This was probably a bad place for a break since “gone” will rhyme with “shone” below.  I find the alliteration of Hopkins so overpowering that I never notice his rhyming.  I do not think I remembered that he rhymed so consistently.  But his rhymes are pretty ordinary.  It is everything else that is new.

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.

In the letter to Robert Bridges that includes this sonnet, Hopkins says its subject is also that of a sermon which will be “put plainly,” unlike the poem which is “not at all so plainly,” but once he hits “Enough!” the content becomes more conventional, returning to the Catholic Church.  I would not call Hopkins a heretic – the idea is ridiculous – but some of the paths by which he reaches orthodox opinion are very much his own.

                            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.

The last line has three stress marks, on “Is,” “im-,” and “dia-.”  Adjacent stresses are standard with Hopkins (“Jack, joke,” “patch, match-“).  Or maybe “diamond” is an “outride,” more of Hopkins’s own private prosody.

To follow Newman, many kinds of assent have been imaginatively supported by Hopkins’s unusual mortal trash, at this point saved from the wildfire by his friend Bridges, not ash yet. Some of the assent has been religious of the Christian kind, other of the literary.

If, more sensibly, you would like to read the poem without my interruptions, it is at the Poetry Foundation.


  1. All is vanity leads me back to the extreme Old Englishness of him, both in the alliteration and also in those two-part compound words, and then I think of the similar harshness in the literature there, those people who describe their rotting bodies, or who reflect that life is fleeting, and that permanence only comes from the "Father in heaven."

  2. Hopkins has a strongly medieval quality that seems to be temperamental rather than the result of study.

  3. Your mention of sermons reminds me that I have argued this in the past: many of his sonnets are thinly disguised sermons because he needed to share the Gospel in his singular, nearly heretical ways.

  4. I think I'd like to receive his letters; read his poems, not so much - I can't understand a single verse!

  5. I was surprised with this poem that Hopkins was so explicit about its parallel as a sermon.

    Miguel, Hopkins is far out. Bridges, who himself was once a major poet - now he is a minor poet, if not unread - is constantly accusing Hopkins of being incomprehensible, and Hopkins is thus constantly explaining individual lines and words. Thank goodness, says I.

    I do no think I have made clear that Hopkins was unpublished until long after his death. When they appeared in 1918, Modernist poets were ready for them.

  6. I haven't read Hopkins in years, but this is the poem I remember, with its piling up of nouns and internal rhymes. I find his obscurity puzzling, since he doesn't seem to be trying to pack in more meaning (like Joyce) or more ambiguity (like Mallarmé). He seems to just want more commas and consonants. The alliterations do make it seem medieval, but he may also have been influenced by Donne, who could make tortured syntax seem like religious fervor. An odd poet, indeed...

  7. Yes, Donne maybe, writing poems that are little puzzles. Except Hopkins uses more arcane clues.