Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wordsmiths: On 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 (1844-1889)

chevy = chase
stanches = stops the flow
shivelights = slivers of light
firedint = mark made by fire
Jack = ordinary man

Hopkins is one of my favourite poets. A Catholic, he initially resolved not to write any more poetry upon entering the priesthood, and even burnt some of his earlier poetry. A tragic boating accident which claimed the lives of 5 nuns relieved him of this vow and he wrote a poem in tribute to them. I was actually asked at my university interview to read up on some of his poetics and discuss them with my tutor, which was nerve-wrecking to say the least! Although sadly, I didn't get to spend enough time studying him, the essay I wrote on him for my Victorian Lit module was probably the only time I didn't actually spout complete rubbish - not that I remember anything of what I wrote!

This is not an easy poem to read, so I'll try to provide some guidance. The first thing to note is that the full title of this piece is On the Nature of the Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection, which provides some clues. Heraclitus was an ancient Greek philosopher who maintained that everything in the world was in a state of permanent flux. For him, fire is the origin of all matter, including the soul, as it is a symbol of perpetual change.

The second thing to note is that Hopkins had very interesting aesthetic theories, and for our purposes, we just need to know that he believed very strongly that we can perceive something with great intensity; in other words, Hopkins has a basic trust that our senses can work really well in telling us what we need to know about our surroundings. And so he often tries his hardest to paint very vivid word-pictures, to the extent of coining new words. A favourite technique of his was to create compound words to try to get his point across. You also frequently find ungrammatical structures in this poem, such is the intensity of his communication.

Therefore in this poem, he starts out by constructing a picture of nature at its wildest, reflecting the Heraclitean flux. You'd notice the barrage of words thrown at you as you read it, which only adds to the effect. This celebration of nature, however, is tempered by man's place in the scheme of things. Hopkins is aware of man's frailty and mortality in the "Million-fueled Nature's bonfire". "His mark on mind, is gone!"

But abruptly, something joyously breaks in: "Enough! The Resurrection!" The wild energy displayed in the first half of the poem is now more controlled, reflecting that Nature is not its own Master, after all, but under the thumb of God. Notice the deliberate repetition in the final words - this shows the firm hand of a Creator, not the random chance of evolution. (Hopkins was writing in the age of Darwin, after all). And it is God that also enables the hope of the putting "Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection". The Heraclitean conception of a "world’s wildfire, leave but ash" is at odds with the Christian belief of resurrection. We can be "immortal diamonds", sharing the same incarnate body as Christ.

Not that he didn't know how difficult life could be in the present. His notes in 1889 read: "There is a happiness, hope, the anticipation of happiness thereafter: it is better than happiness, but it is not happiness now."

But don't you just love knowing of the inbreaking of God into the world through Jesus, who dies in our place and defeats death, and that if we place our trust in him, we share in his resurrection life? "Enough, the Resurrection!"

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