Synopsis of That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire


This is one of the last poems Hopkins ever wrote, being dated 26th July, 1888, Dublin, Ireland. It is also one of his most important, as a mature expression of Hopkins' Christian faith. Keep wrestling with it; in the end, understanding will come.

The long title signals Hopkins' attempt:

  • to marry Greek philosophy with Christian teaching
  • to find the true place for nature and man in God's plan for the world.

i.e. it has an ambitious theological programme.

From beginning to end

Hopkins has clearly put behind him the ‘Terrible Sonnets' of his dark night (of the soul), and can re-enter the joy of nature that characterized his poetry at the beginning. But there is a more sombre note, too, as he thinks of the end of all things, echoing perhaps a premonition of his own end, to occur in the next year. Like the poet John Keats, who died very young of T.B., Hopkins had a sense of needing to go through the fire of suffering before his life's work could be completed.

A 24 line ‘sonnet'

One of the most noticeable things about the poem, which is meant to be a sonnet, is its length. Normally a sonnet will consist of around 100 words. Hopkins' earlier Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, which he called the world's longest sonnet, consisted of some 190 words. But this poem contains 213 words, almost exactly the same length as Keats' famous Ode to Melancholy! Hopkins achieves this length by adding three coda of two and a half lines each, and an extra half line to tack the coda on to the sonnet proper. It seems more like a philosophical ode than a sonnet.


Heraclitus was a very early Greek philosopher, living 535-475 BC, some time before Socrates or Plato or Aristotle. Only fragments of his work are left, but it would seem Heraclitushe believed:

  • that fire was the basic and ultimate element in the creation
  • that all things began in fire and would end in fire
  • that everything was in a state of permanent change or flux
  • that strife was normative
  • there would be a final destruction, and nothing would escape it.

Other modern poets have been attracted to Heraclitus. Both W.B.Yeats and T.S.Eliot quote him in their poems, and we can see that modern discoveries about the universe seem to suggest Heraclitus was on the right track scientifically. The Bible talks of the end of the world, too, and its ending in fire:

By the same word the present heaven and earth are reserved or fire, being kept for the day of judgement ... the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire' (1 Peter 3:7 and 1 Peter 3:10 TNIV)

Hopkins uses this similarity of language to marry the two schools of thought. Out of it he makes a most striking and dramatic poem.

Investigating That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire
  • On first reading the poem, could you make out something of what Hopkins was saying?
  • What were your first impressions of the sonnet? Did it seem
    • as if it were an important one?
    • that Hopkins was saying something significant?
  • As a preliminary exercise gather together:
    • all the references to fire and to destruction
    • all the references to water and wetness
  • Read the account of creation in the Bible, Genesis 1:1-31
    • Does that suggest fire or water?
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.