A potsherd, of course, is a bit of broken pottery, and is used as a simile in the Bible a couple of times, notably in Psalm 22:15,
My strength is dried up like a potsherd.
It is also a metaphor for human beings: we are created by the great Potter. Isaiah 45:9 proclaims,
Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? Or thy work, He hath no hands?
In this case, the poor potsherd in the title of this site is myself. And the reference is to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.” It’s one of my favorite poems, and it is about the pitiable human condition and the great reversal that arrives at the hour of our greatest despair.
The section that begins
Million-fueled nature’s bonfire burns on
is the consummate description of the wretchedness of living in a world that always ends in death. We cling to others and entwine our lives with those we love, but in the end death snatches them away from us. No matter how meaningful the life in question is or how loved is the beloved, Death quenches nature’s
bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selved spark
We make plans. We strive to make an imprint on this world. We want our lives to have meaning, and yet, how fast any trace that we were here is erased:
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
These are dismal thoughts, but Hopkins won’t relent. He reminds us how little we matter in the vast expanse of space and in the near infinity of time.
Death blots black out; nor mark is any of him at all so stark but vastness blurs and time beats level.
Everything we want—connection and meaning—is stripped from us. We are but dust. We have no ability to get ourselves out of this pathetic situation. We are helpless in the face of such an inescapable fate.
At this point, even the poet can’t stand it anymore. “Enough!” he cries. And then, like the cavalry arriving just in time to save the day, Calvary arrives and its subsequent triumph, “the Resurrection.” Can anyone reading these words, even unbelievers, avoid the sense of joy in the prospect of being rescued from our “foundering deck?” Yes, the flesh will fade and this body will “fall to the residuary worm.” Yes, nature’s bonfire will keep burning for a while more, but
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.
When I first read this poem, that last line took my breath away. I read Hopkins’ list of designations—Jack, joke, patch, matchwood—like someone sorting through a pile of papers who absentmindedly throws away the valuable with the trash. I passed over that first mention of the immortal diamond without much thought, seeing it at first as similar to the previous items. But then Hopkins drives home his point. Yes, we are virtually trash, save for this amazing and hardly understood fact: We are also immortal diamonds. And then the profound implications of what Christ has done with such common, ephemeral material as ourselves jerk us out of our despair and bring us to attention. We sit up and take notice at this declaration and shake our heads in wonder—right before we fall to our knees in gratitude.
Jeff Smallwood says
Greetings – I came upon your website by accident… I was looking up a quotation from Michael O’Brien’s novel “The Fathers Tale,” which was “Jack, joke, patch, matchwood.” I came upon your website and learned that it was from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I remember taking a Victorian literature class in college, and the teacher LOVED Hopkins. I couldn’t figure him (Hopkins) out. Or most any other poetry for that matter. No wonder, I was a kid of 20 or 21… Over the years I began to appreciate and understand poetry more… but I still can’t figure out Hopkins! However, I will continue to try, since many people I respect love his poetry. Thank you for this website!
Poor Potsherd says
Thanks for the comment. And I have been off with other issues so am very late replying. I really love Hopkins although I too find him impenetrable at times. But sometimes he is just so piercingly insightful and a way that I do understand.
This is such a helpful treatment of this rich yet somewhat slipper and elusive poem. Thank you for sharing this. Your insights and interpretations are invaluable.