Tag Archives: theology

‘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

‘Consecrated’ by St. Catherine of Sienna

All has been consecrated.
The creatures in the forest know this,
The earth does, the seas do, the clouds know
as does the heart
full of love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this knowledge
and then empower himself with the ability
to make holy
what already was.

This is a poem by one of the great Catholic saints, Catherine of Sienna, who lived in the 14th Century. Her’s is a fascinating biography: she saw guardian angels from the age of 6, and became a nun at the age of 16 (against the wishes of her parents, who wanted her to marry.) She continued having visions and mystical experiences throughout her short life (she died at just 33), as well as writing much poetry, letters, and as other writings that are still considered very important in the Church.

I love this poem because it seems almost heretical, yet it was written by a saint. It is so beautiful, and voices something that I have often thought myself — Why do I need a priest to act as a mediator between myself and God?

“Everything has been consecrated”, St Catherine tells us. The world knows this; nobody has a special authority to make places, things or people holy. There is something almost pagan here, in the idea that the “creatures in the forest”, the “earth”, the “seas” and the “clouds” know it. St Catherine finds holiness everywhere — in nature — and tells us that we do not need another person or ‘holy man’ to consecrate what God has already consecrated. You do not need a person to perform any kind of ritual, or blessing over you to make you holy: you already are holy.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The parable of the old man and the young’ by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This poem retells the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. At the beginning of the poem, you could almost believe that it is going to be a conventional telling of the story, because it sounds just like the Bible translation. It is not until you read the description of Abram’s preparations of “fire and iron” that it becomes clear that this is a different version of the old parable. Owen creates a clear depiction of the particular war in which he was fighting, with the “belts and straps”, and the “parapets and trenches”.

In the original story from the bible, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son for Him. Abraham goes to do this, preparing an altar and a knife, but at the last minute, God tells him to stop. God tells Abraham to sacrifice a Ram instead. Abraham is relieved and sacrifices the Ram in the place of his son, and Isaac lives.

In this poem, Wilfred Owen has changed Abraham into a symbol of the politicians of Europe, sending the young men to die in their millions during the First World War. It is a recurring theme in much of the poetry from the Great War — the horror and disgust that the soldiers and soldier-poets felt at the reality of old, rich men sending the young masses to the trenches be slaughtered. Siegfried Sassoon (fellow poet and friend of Wilfred Owen) describes similar disgust for the ignorant men who sent the masses to their deaths in his poem Base Details:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say–“I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die–in bed.

I wanted to post Sassoon’s poem here because I think that it is interesting to see the difference between Sassoon’s tone and Owen’s. You can feel the anger in Base Details — but Sassoon has channelled his anger into a satirical piece that uses irony to mock what he called “callous complacence” (in his letter, A soldier’s declaration, which was read out to the House of Commons in 1917).

In both Sassoon’s and Owen’s poems there is a strong sense of the futility of the slaughter of the soldiers, but I am personally more drawn to Owen’s poem because I prefer the tragic tone rather than the satire of Sassoon…

Owen’s contempt for the politicians is clear in ‘The parable of the old man and the young’ as he talks about the “Ram of Pride”. The angel in the poem asks Abram to sacrifice his Pride instead of his son, but Abram “would not so”. Here you can see the disgust that Owen has for the politicians and perhaps for civilians too, like Sassoon. How can we not have contempt for one who would sacrifice his son (and “half the seed of Europe”) rather than his Pride?

I love the way that Owen has separated the final two lines of the poem, because it sets them apart and emphasises their importance and tragedy:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

There is, to me, a real sense of powerlessness in these lines; even God could not stop Abram from killing his son and the sons of Europe. That phrase “half the seed of Europe” delivers such a sense of waste. The description of Abram as “the old man” is very evocative, I think, of a miserly creature — it is a description that has very negative connotations. Isaac, however, is an innocent victim, like the soldiers.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh