“AS KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE”

By LARRY FINK

(Editor’s Note: Larry Fink is a professor of English at Hardin-Simmons University. He brings insight into the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins in this explication of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”)

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.


I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Larry Fink bw

Larry Fink

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889) was one of the best British poets of
the Victorian era. (Others: Alfred Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Mathew Arnold.) He published very little in his lifetime—somewhat like America’s great 19th-century poet, Emily Dickinson. In both cases, their styles were so innovative that readers and potential publishers didn’t know how to respond to them.

In addition to being a poet and a priest, Hopkins was something of a philosopher of aesthetics; he developed influential ideas about beauty—its nature, origin, and purpose—ideas compatible with, and closely related to, his faith. To explain his ideas, he coined several words that are still in use by critics of art and literature. He believed that everything God makes is unique, one of a kind—not just every kind of tree, but each tree of the same species, each leaf on each tree. For Hopkins, this uniqueness is perceptible by people. He called this quality inscape, and it permeates the whole creature. Depending upon the nature of the thing—stone, bird, person—its inscape is expressed in different ways. As simple or as complex as the being is, Hopkins calls its expression of its inscape selving. A rock selves simply by being that rock, with its weight, size, shape, color, etc. People selve—reveal their uniqueness, including their inner natures—by their actions.

Of course, their outsides are also unique, a glorious fact for Hopkins. A third term he coined is instress. Like selve”, instress is a verb. It is the act of perceiving something’s inscape. To perceive someone or something’s inscape usually requires the intense use of the senses and the imagination, consciously or unconsciously. For Hopkins, the experience of instress can yield not only the appreciation of uniqueness, but a revelation of a particular facet of the creator, a bit like how looking at different works of art by the same artist reveals his or her different sides. Of a walk home from fishing on a fall day in north Wales, he writes,

“. . . I lift up heart, eyes,

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour . . .”

— from “Hurrahing in Harvest”

That is, he attempts to harvest a vision or an insight about Christ from a deliberate and intense act of concentration on the clouds and sky. By example, Hopkins encourages the reader to use his senses, to look at and listen closely to the creation.

Now, with that background. Let’s look at “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” The first eight lines offer examples of animals and objects selving, expressing their inscapes. The rest of the poem describes the more complex selving of humans, especially those indwelt by Christ. Line one identifies what a particular bird and insect have in common.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

The poet is referring to the fact that when we see these two animals, they are usually illuminated by the same kind of light—flickering light from below—sunlight reflecting off the surface of water—like light from a fire or flame. To paraphrase the line, kingfishers catch the light the same way dragonflies doMost of us have seen dragonflies hovering above water or landing on the tips of our fishing rods. Birders know that the kingfisher perches above rivers and lakes, dives headfirst into water, and emerges with a fish in its beak. This is how it makes its living. This is how we are likely to see these creatures expressing their uniqueness (selving), with flickering light illuminating them from below.

The next three lines provide auditory examples of selving: a stone rolling over the edge of a well, a string being plucked on a harp or other stringed instrument, and a bell ringing—each making a sound different from every other stone, string, or bell in the world.

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

These simple objects are similar in that they express their uniqueness by emitting their unique sounds when tumbled, tucked, or swung. Notice, Hopkins uses the archaic word “tucked” instead of “plucked.” He frequently uses older words or words that have multiple meanings, two reasons why Hopkins is a challenging poet.

Lines four-six are the easiest of the poem; he’s just explaining selving:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

In the concluding lines, he describes how the being living in a Christian—Christ—selves through the actions of the believer:

I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;

 
 Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Note how Hopkins turns “justice” into a verb, a small matter for someone who invents his own words. The word “plays” has at least two meanings. First, play as in, amuses himself: Christ taking joy in acting through different believers. Second, He plays—or acts out various roles—“To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Thus, entertaining or, more likely, glorifying the Father.

Understanding the poem and the ideas it affirms is alone satisfying, even inspiring: the grandeur and dignity granted to each creature by the quality of uniqueness, the possibility of glimpsing a fresh vision of the Creator through looking and listening, the thought of the Son joyfully glorifying the Father through the actions of His followers. But to fully experience the impact of the poem, we must read it aloud. Let your ears hear all the rhyme, but also the alliteration: “kingfishers catch”, “dragonflies draw”, “rim in roundy, “tucked string tells”, “speaks and spells”, “goings graces”, “Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes”, “Father through the features of men’s faces”. Or, try saying this three times fast: “like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;”—all monosyllabic words with some internal rhyme thrown in for fun: “hung”, “swung”, “tongue’.

Now, memorize it. Carry it around in your head a while. Recite it aloud like a prayer. See if you don’t start looking more closely at birds and bugs, listening to stones and bells and tucked strings. See if you can keep from seeing Christ playing in working arms and loving eyes to the glory of the Father.

Larry E. Fink is professor of English at Hardin-Simmons University

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