As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Before we turn to my favorite Hopkins poem, let me explain, briefly, two key components of Hopkins’ theology, a theology that often powerfully informs his creative writing.

From his reading of the medieval writer John Duns Scotus, Hopkins derived a belief that every object in creation, living or inert, possesses its own essence placed there by God at its creation. Hopkins called the distinct design or energy of every created thing its inscape.

Human beings possess inscape, but, unlike other created things, people get to choose whether to act in harmony or in discordance with their inscape. Humans also have the unique cognitive ability to perceive the inscapes of other creatures. This action, observing a bird, say, or a stone or a bell closely enough to discover and appreciate its inscape, Hopkins called instress. The instress of inscape (that is, the recognition of God-given essence) always leads us back to God, for inscape bears the stamp of divine creation.

The above represents an oversimplification, but it’s enough to go on. Keep inscape and instress in mind as you read the poem:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

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 What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. 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.

I normally would not do this, but in order to facilitate comprehension for the sake of this (relatively) brief post, I am going to paraphrase the poem [gasp!].  Just please keep in mind that completely objective paraphrase does not exist; paraphrase is also interpretation:

“Just as kingfishers catch fire in the sun and dragonflies draw flame;
As stones ring as they tumble over the rims of round wells;
As each plucked instrument string tells;
As each hung bell’s bow, swung, finds voice to fling out broad its name;
So too every mortal thing does one thing and the same.
Each thing expresses that inner being within which each one dwells;
Each thing “selves,” each goes “itself”; each speaks and spells “myself.”
Crying “what I do is me. For that I came.”

I’ll go further: the just man “justices” (acts in a just manner)
And keeps grace, which keeps all his expressions of self, his life, filled with grace;
The just man acts in God’s eye what to God he is: Christ.
Christ plays in 10,000 places as light plays off water.
To the Father, Christ is lovely in limbs not his; lovely in eyes not his own;
Lovely through the features of men’s faces.”

As you go back to re-read the poem, at least this rather prosaic paraphrase serves to underscore the brilliant music of Hopkins’ sonnet. We see again a dizzying concerto of internal rhyme (“wells,” “tells,” “bell’s,” “ring,” “string,” “fling,” “thing,” “hung,” “swung,” “tongue”) complemented by alliteration (dragonflies/draw, fire/flame, rim/roundy/ring). These densely packed lines suggest that not only does each creature exuberantly express its own inscape, but that all these expressions work in unified harmony: the fire and flame of iridescence matches the swift movement of tumbling stones; the “ring” of these falling stones sounds in concord with the plucked violin strings and the tolling of hung bells.

Lines 5 through 8 define the singular nature of inscape and instress (each created thing is here to do one thing, to “selve,” to express its inner essence), but as the persona turns to humans in line 9, the straightforward singularity of inscape becomes more complicated. God may have created people for one purpose, but we do not always choose to “selve” as God would have us.  If we choose to live according to the example of Jesus, then our inner being acquires an arresting duality: no longer just ourselves, Christ also dwells in us. Our inscape becomes Christ in man, dealt out through grace.  As Paul wrote in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (2:20).

Here is the truly cool thing about the poem: repetition early in the poem foreshadows this duality [“As” (lines 1 & 2), “each” (line 3),“thing” (line 5), “itself/myself” (line 7)], and then repetition in the sestet powerfully brings it to fruition ( just/justices, keeps/keeps, grace/graces, God’s eye/God’s eye, Christ/Christ, lovely/lovely). Fantastic!

Finally, the poet’s use of alliteration bookends the entire poem. The fire and flame of bird and dragonfly in line 1 are matched by the features of men’s faces in line 14. All creatures, if they act according to their divinely-inspired essences, are beautiful in the eyes of God.

Whew! I’ve divided my thoughts on Hopkins between two entries and still feel that there is so much more to say!  If these posts have piqued your interest, let me know.   Want more Hopkins?  Go next to “Pied Beauty” and “Spring and Fall.”  Then, when you feel good about Hopkins (or at least better about Hopkins),  try “The Windhover.”  Enjoy!

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