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‘As kingfishers catch fire’ by 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.

This is an utterly fabulous poem, exquisite in its language and expression. When I first read this one, I remember being so taken by the deliciousness of the sound of it that I forgot to pay attention to what the words actually signified. I think this poem is really extraordinary; Hopkins uses language in such a unique and playful way, even coining new verbs of his own invention.

The opening line is just breathtaking. The image of kingfishers ‘catching fire’ is one that anybody who has ever seen a kingfisher’s plumage catch the sunlight can picture. Their feathers are of such a splendid vividness that in bright sunlight they would appear almost to “catch fire”. The dragonflies, in a similar fashion, “draw flame”. I took a photo of a dragonfly on a reed once in France, zooming right up close to it so that you could see every fleck of colour, and it is just startling the brightness of the colours; this sentence reminded me of that photo.

Moving on to the next line, this is just incredible. I love the “roundy” wells (there’s a new adjective coined by Hopkins) and the way he communicates the essence of a stone by saying that it “rings” as it tumbles over into the well. You see, the essence of the kingfisher is expressed as he “catches fire,” and the dragonfly’s as he “draw[s] flame”. The stone “rings” and then (I think this is my favourite part of the whole poem) “each hung bell’s/ Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name”; the bell expresses its essence as it gongs. This is the bell speaking its name, saying “What I do is me, for that I came”. I just adore this first half of the sonnet. Hopkins tells us that “Each mortal thing” does the same thing — the thing it was born to do, the thing it has come to this earth to do. And here we find the first new verb that Hopkins coined in this poem: “Selves” (in this poem, ‘to selve’ seems to mean to express and embody one’s essence).

In the second half of the poem, Hopkins goes further (“I say more”). He says that, in the same way as the kingfisher and the dragonfly, the stone and the bell have their essence to express, their purpose to fulfil, “the just man justices”. This is the second verb coined by the poet in this piece: ‘to justice’ means “to act in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – /Christ”. I think this is just a beautiful expression of God dwelling in every person; Christ “plays in ten thousand places” — he is everywhere. The phrase “lovely in limbs” I think refers to the fact that, according to Christianity, Christ was God made man. This gives hope to humanity, since God can live within us, “lovely in eyes not his”. God’s essence can find expression through “the features of men’s faces”.

I think this is an incredible poem, and that it can be appreciated whether or not you are of a Christian or spiritual bent. To me, it is perfectly crafted and its use of language is an example of real poetic genius.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh