Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows/ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-This is the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins out of control, his sprung verse springing about like a jackrabbit, his soul burning, burning in the apprehension of a roiling skyscape -- tumbling clouds, light and shadow. He is near the end of his short life; he died in 1889, aged 45, of typhoid fever, weakened by several years of poor health. And although we might conclude that in this late poem -- That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire -- he has let language run amok, it is probably also true that his perception of the natural world had become so acute -- so soul-searing -- that he struggled to find a way for language to contain it.
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay gangs/ they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash,/ wherever an elm arches,
Shrivelights 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 rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed/ dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squandroned masks and manmarks/ treadmire toil there
Footfreted in it. Million-fueled/ nature's bonfire burns on.
Hopkins was certainly aware of the glittering successes of Victorian science, but he understood too the Heraclitean maxim "Nature loves to hide." He did not have intellectual access to the mind-blowing beauty of Maxwell's equations, or the many-arching grandeur of Darwin's view of life. For him the Heraclitean fire was both an exhilaration and an agony. Only the possibility of resurrection in Christ (as the rest of the poem makes clear) gave meaning to his life, or so he believed. Otherwise, he was just one more part of the many-fueled fire that burns in an enormous dark, a "jack, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood." Though apparently racked with existential doubt, his faith consoled him to the end. His last words were "I am so happy. I am so happy."
Charles Darwin, the tormented agnostic, and Hopkins, the tormented believer, were not so far apart. They both burned in the Heraclitean fire, they both wanted to see beyond nature's veil. Neither man was satisfied with the commonplace world of immediate perception. Nor did either man pretend that he had seen nature stripped of its veil. What marks them as brothers is that they were both creatures of the portal -- the flaming soul-exciting, soul-consuming doorway between the particular and the universal where the questing human spirit defines itself and endures.
(This post originally appeared in December 2006.)