Commentary on That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire

Joy in nature

The octave is reminiscent of the joy Hopkins felt in nature when he was at St. Beunos and first writing poetry again. The mood of the dark sonnets of the previous two years seems to have dissipated itself. The breathless descriptions of a windy, cloudy day after a rainstorm, has all the technical brilliance of The Sea and The Skylark or The Windhover.


The first few lines describe the scudding clouds, their shape and movement across the sky, and the way they create shadows in the sunshine - the poem was written midsummer. Hopkins personifies the clouds, ‘heaven-roysterers', 'gay gangs', as if they were revellers coming home from a party. Hopkins' fascination with shadows returns with the descriptions in ll.3,4:

  • ‘shivelights' means strips of light, as the sun shines through an elm tree, causing light and shade (the dapple effect seen in Pied Beauty)
  • ‘whitewash' is elliptical for ‘whitewashed walls' as opposed to ‘roughcast walls', the two creating different shadow effects.

The drying wind

The second quatrain moves on to the wind itself, not here blowing the clouds across the sky, but drying the puddles and mud caused by the previous day's showers (‘yestertempest's creases').

  • In l.6 some editions have ‘rutpeel', others have ‘rut peel'. Hopkins is describing the ruts made in the muddy roads being dried by the wind and ‘peeling' off, like flaky skin
  • The wind, a symbol of the ‘flux' that Heraclitus talks about, is actively changing the landscape, for instance drying the ‘ooze' and making it into a ‘dough', then a ‘crust' then into ‘dust'
  • ‘stanches' means ‘make firm', as when one starches cloth to make it stiff. So the footprints in the mud caused by ‘treadmire toil' (farm workers having to tread their way through the mud / mire when it was still soaking wet) now become hardened into apparantly permanent ‘manmarks' (like physical landmarks).

Hopkins' use of compounds and ellipsis here makes for a very dense texture to his verse.


There is a transition in l.9 as Hopkins suddenly remembers the conclusion of Heraclitus: that in all this flux, man, too, is transitory. The image changes from wind and rain to fire:

  • Nature becomes threatening: ‘Million-fuelled nature's bonfire burns on'
  • Man seems very fragile: a dried footprint in the road is hardly a sign of permanence
  • ‘how fast his firedint' has an ironic pun on the word ‘fast' which can mean ‘quick' or ‘permanent', as in a fast dye. Does man's spark flare and quickly die or shine permanently? The context seems to suggest the former, though as the poem goes on, Hopkins is to argue the latter.

All-powerful death?

Hopkins particularly protests against death rather than just fire: ‘death blots black out'.

  • The darkness seems to suggest the dark of space, its vastness: ‘But vastness blurs and time beats level'
  • The ‘dust' of l.7 symbolises the dust of death and nonentity

Hopkins own philosophy is derived from Duns Scotus (see Literary context: Duns Scotus), with its emphasis on the uniqueness of each created thing and person:

‘her clearest-selved spark/ Man'.

What is to happen to this uniqueness in the dust of death and the vastness of space?

The coda response

The sestet has not answered the problem of flux: it has made it worse! This is where the three coda are necessary. They form the Christian response to Heraclitus, who was known as ‘the weeping philosopher', so pessimistic was his message.


The heart of the Christian message is the resurrection, by which Hopkins refers not so much to Jesus rising from the dead after his crucifixion, but the resurrection of all Christians from the dead, as described by Paul in the New Testament:

‘Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye; at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed, For this corruptible must put on immortality' (1 Corinthians 15:51-53 AV)

We can see Hopkins' references to this in ‘In a flash, at a trumpet crash'. This hope of the resurrection is like a beacon light to him in days of dejection: although his ‘corruptible' flesh may be eaten by the ‘residuary worm', and the final destructive fire on earth ‘leave but ash', that won't affect his immortal body. He uses shipwreck imagery that reminds us of The Wreck of the Deutschland.

Christian hope

Since this ‘resurrection body' was first taken on by Christ in his resurrection life, so Hopkins at his own death / resurrection is ‘all at once what Christ is'. And this is possible because of the incarnation, when Jesus took on the nature of humanity: ‘since he was what I am'.

Paul describes what happened to Christ elsewhere in the New Testament:

‘And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death....' (Philippians 2:8 AV)

The Bible states that Christ became human and subjected himself to mortality, yet rose from death to an eternal life. Thus the Christian hope lies in permanence beyond Heraclitus's flux. The final image, of a diamond, suggests this immortality, since not even a fire can destroy the diamond: it has such a permanent structure.

Investigating That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire
  • Work out the descriptions of human beings in 1.23.
    • How are they so opposite from the diamond image?
  • Why does Hopkins exclaim ‘O pity and indignation'?
  • What is your own worldview here?
    • Do you see an end to the universe?
    • Is there also a complete end to humans when they die?
  • Can you get in touch with Hopkins' beliefs in the light of your own world view?
    • Is his poetry sufficiently strong to bridge the gap?
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