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As Kingfishers Catch Fire -- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Guest poem submitted by Sarah Kunjummen:
(Poem #1594) 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.
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins
           Published in 1918.

This site has a pretty good representation of Hopkins' poetry already, but
one of my favorites was missing, so I couldn't resist sending it in.  This
poem is based on his personal philosophy of inscape, which, if I understand
rightly, is the inner essence or meaning which every created thing has;
somewhat like a platonic ideal, except that each object's inscape is an
intrinsic part of itself. It celebrates a nature which, though perhaps
fallen, is still marvelous in being what it is so exuberantly and

In the second part of the sonnet, Hopkins extends this idea to mankind.  The
just show in their every action an inner character and grace that reflects
the character of God, and in doing so are beautiful to God himself.  The
last four lines hold echoes of Christian doctrines of justification and
sanctification. I love Hopkins's vision of even the most insignificant
things (stones, dragonflies, humans, etc.) having a meaning and beauty
uniquely their own.

The poem is a sonnet, with an abbaabba cdcdcd rhyme scheme, but instead of
the traditional sonnet meter, employs sprung rhythm, a more Germanic type of
poetry in which only emphasized syllables are counted.  In view of this
difference, the strong meter of this poem never fails to surprise me.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, coming into the Catholic church
in the Oxford movement and received by Cardinal Newman.  His poetry was not
published in his lifetime; in fact, he was very far out of the mainstream of
Victorian poetry.  While no information is really necessary to enjoy his
poetry, I think there's a much more extensive bio attached to Poem #606,
"God's Grandeur."


34 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Gerry Rowe said...

I heard a literary quiz programme on BBC Radio 4 a
couple of months ago in which the panellists were
asked to say what poetry meant to them. One of them
quoted the first line of this poem:

As kingfishers catch fire so dragonflies draw flame...

as the best example of poetry he could think of. He
added that this opening line is almost a poem in
itself. And I agree! This is poetry with form and
content perfectly balanced in two matching half lines.

Gerry Rowe

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