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Have you ever noticed the almost unnaturally vibrant colors of a bird or the striking iridescence of a dragonfly's wing caught in shimmering light? If not, then maybe you need a poet's perspective. The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins can draw you deeper into the contemplation of nature's meaning and self-expression through his short but thought-provoking poem, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" (1877).
|Author||Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1899)|
|Type of poem||Petrarchan/Italian sonnet|
|Key Themes||Expression of identity, creation as a reflection of God|
|Poetic Techniques||Personification, alliteration, imagery, rhyme, inversion/anastrophe, enjambment|
The poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844‐1889) in 1877 while the poet was living amidst the bountiful nature of North Wales.
A kingfisher is small, bright orange and blue bird that is known to fly low along the surface of the water in order to catch fish. Kingfishers are commonly found in Wales and England, where Gerard Manley Hopkins lived. In the context of the poem, what is striking about the kingfisher is the turquoise strip of feathers down its back, which reflects iridescently in the light, appearing to "catch fire."
Though it was previously thought to be written in 1881, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is now acknowledged as one of 11 sonnets written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1877. This year marked the year Hopkins was ordained a Jesuit Catholic priest. The period from 1875 to 1877 was a revitalized time of Gerard Manley Hopkins' writing, as he had given up writing nearly seven years prior due to his desire to focus on religion. When "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" was written, Hopkins was a theology student at St. Beuno's College in the beautiful, inspiring nature of North Wales. Nature greatly influenced his poetry.
Like much of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" was influenced by his concept pertaining to the unique individuality of things, which he referred to as inscape. Although there is no one clear definition of the term, Gerard Manley Hopkins used it to refer to the expression and essence of the unique individuality of nature, people, and things, or every "mortal thing" (line 5).1 Inscape takes into account that all things are made with an intricate, intentional, yet individual design, which ultimately reflects the beauty and power of God as the creator. For example, in "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," Hopkins describes birds, dragonflies, stones in wells, and people, emphasizing their uniqueness of self-expression.
Gerard Manley Hopkins' concept of inscape was influenced by one of his favorite medieval philosophers, John Duns Scotus. Duns Scotus was a Scottish Catholic priest, professor, and theologian (1265–1308). Duns Scotus has influenced both secular and religious philosophy and is best known for his doctrines on existence, being, and individuality. He is also known for his arguments proving the existence of God and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Victorian Era poet. His writing is situated between the Romantic and Modernist literary movements. His love for nature and emotional language is similar to that of Romanticism, yet Hopkins' poetry had a much more experimental nature than most Romantic poets. Gerard Manley Hopkins did not adhere purely to the trends of Victorian nor Romantic writings but is known for his experimentation with sounds, natural-sounding rhythm or meter, and vivid language and imagery. Hopkins' poetry often centers around themes of God and nature.
Gerard Manley Hopkins begins the poem with the line, "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame." By this, he means that the iridescence of the bird's feathers and the dragonfly's wing appear to "catch fire" or "draw flame" when reflecting in the sun. The fact that the sun's light reflects off these creatures in order to reveal their unique beauty ties in with the Christian idea of creation being a reflection of God's beauty.
Gerard Manley Hopkins goes on to describe the uniqueness of inanimate objects. While he appears to the visual sense in the initial line, he now turns to sound. He describes how "stones ring" as they fall into wells and how the clapper, also known as the "tongue" of a bell, swings from side to side to make a unique sound. Hopkins personifies the action of the bell, saying that it "finds tongue to fling out broad its name" (line 4).
Through all this imagery of nature, wells, and bells, Gerard Manley Hopkins builds the idea that everything has something hidden within itself that it wants to share or proclaim. The kingfishers and dragonflies show off their beauty in the gleam of the sun, but otherwise, they would likely fly by too quickly for their beauty to be noticed. The well represents something deep, dark, quiet, and enclosed, yet it echoes as stones tumble down its interior. A church bell is something that is often kept high up in a tower, inanimate and inaccessible to many, yet rings loudly as if proclaiming its own voice and presence from above.
Hopkins goes on to say that each "mortal thing" proclaims its purpose and individuality, revealing its inner nature or inner self. It "Deals out that being indoors each one dwells" (line 6). In line 8, at the end of the poem's first stanza, Hopkins writes, "Crying What I do is me: for that I came." This line solidifies the idea that the purpose of each "mortal thing" is to reveal its inner nature.
In the second stanza of the poem, the focus shifts to the relationship between man and God. Hopkins says that what a man does reflects who he is, as "the just man justices" (line 9). Here Gerard Manley Hopkins turns the noun justice into a verb to convey the meaning that good, fair, and honest people enact these qualities in their lives. In Catholicism, all goodness within humanity is seen as a reflection of God and is accomplished in cooperation with God's grace. Hopkins says that the "just" or honest person reflects his true inner self by acting "in God's eye what in God's eye he is — Christ."
Hopkins ends the poem, "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" (lines 12–14). Jesus Christ is the son of God, understood as being both fully man and fully divine. Christians seek to allow Christ to live within and through them. Hopkins says that Christ is visible in the faces of people. He suggests that the proclamation of our true inner nature and individuality is a reflection of God and His unique creation of humanity to reveal this inner Christ.
Here is the full poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire":
|Line||'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' Full Poem|
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.
"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is a unique poem written in a varied sonnet form. It features internal rhyme and Hopkins's characteristic 'sprung rhythm.'
"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is a variation of an Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet. A Petrarchan sonnet normally has the following characteristics:
"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" has the traditional structure and rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet, but its meter differs from iambic pentameter. The Petrarchan sonnet form creates a shift, or volta, in the subject of the poem from the first stanza to the second. While the first stanza focuses on the inner "voice" of animals and objects in proclaiming their being, the second focuses on in inner nature of humans in relationship to God.
The rhyme scheme of 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' is ABBAABBA CDCDCD. This is typical of a Petrarchan sonnet and provides a sense of consistency and unity. However, Hopkins also experiments with rhyme, creating internal rhyme schemes.
Internal rhyme: also known as middle rhyme, internal rhyme is rhyming established within a single line of verse or across multiple lines in the middle of phrases.
"Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name" (lines 3–4).
"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" contains internal rhyme both within single lines and across lines ("ring," "string," and "fling"; "tells" and "bell's"; "hung," "swung," and "tongue"). Hopkins uses this internal rhyme to mimic the back and forth sound of the bell.
While a normal sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" uses Hopkins' characteristic sprung rhythm to create a more natural, fluid reading of the poem.
Sprung rhythm: a type of meter than counts the number of stressed syllables in a line but can vary in the number of unstressed syllables. The term sprung rhythm was created by Gerard Manley Hopkins to describe a form of meter that sounds more natural in mimicking the stresses in regular speech.
The lines in "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" typically have five stressed syllables per line. Gerard Manley Hopkins indicates stresses of his sprung rhythm with accents in order to indicate which words should be stressed in cases where it may not be clear. In this example, the line has 11 syllables and five stressed syllables (marked in bold). Hopkins' indicated stresses on the words "what" and "do" emphasize the idea that it is the acts of "mortal beings" that are significant for their purpose and identity.
"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" focuses on the themes of expression of identity and creation as a reflection of God.
A prominent theme in "As Kingfishers Catch fire" is the expression of identity. As the kingfisher and dragonflies flash their splendid colors in the light, the stones that echo down wells and the ringing bell resound the voice of speechless things making themselves seen and heard. Gerard Manley Hopkins evokes the idea that all of creation is crying out to live its unique purpose and reveal its inner self. Hopkins explains that, in the case of human beings, their unique purpose is to reveal that Christ lives within them by living in cooperation with God's grace.
Ultimately, the expression of all things, from the bird to the pebble to the person, is an expression of God's intentions in His unique creation. It is as if creation is yearning to proclaim the beauty of the God who made it. Gerard Manley Hopkins says that the revelation of a person's most inner self and the existence of Christ within them is living in accordance with God's will and grace.
The poem features poetic techniques including personification, alliteration, enjambment, and inversion—which is also known as anastrophe.
Personification is the attribution of human characteristics to nonliving things. Here is an example of personification:
"Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name" (line 4).
Hopkins uses personification to describe the bell's clapper as its tongue, swinging back in forth to make a sound or "to fling out broad its name." Giving the bell the characteristics of a person shouting his or her name helps establish the theme of expression of identity. Even the bell wants to make known its individual sound and its purpose. Gerard Manley Hopkins uses personification throughout the poem to draw attention to the uniqueness and purpose of every created thing.
Alliteration is the repetition of initial sounds in nearby words. Below is an example of alliteration:
"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame" (line 1).
Alliteration is a staple in Hopkins' writing. In this first line from which the title is derived, the alliteration of the "k/c," "f," and "d" sounds draws the reader in and creates an aural sense of repetition that emphasizes the parallel between the first and second phrases – kingfishers catch, and dragonflies draw. The alliteration also links the words “fire” and “flame.”
What is your favorite use of alliteration in the poem? Can you explain why?
Enjambment is when the end of one line flows into the next without pause or punctuation. Below is an example of enjambment:
It is important to note that each stanza of the poem is one sentence. This is made possible through Gerard Manley Hopkins' use of enjambment. Overall, the enjambment creates a flowing or rolling sense in the text that is particularly effective in mimicking the rolling pebbles and the bell swinging to and fro.
Inversion, also known as anastrophe, is the reversal of the order of words in a phrase or sentence. Here is an example from the poem:
"Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came" (line 8).
Gerard Manley Hopkins often uses inversion to place the subjects of his sentences towards the end of phrases, making the reader think about the presented idea before specifically associating it with the subject. In this case, rather than saying: "I came to cry 'What I do is me,'" he places the idea that self-expression is linked to identity before the explanation of purpose. This suggests that the purpose of things is shown through or after their expression of identity. In this case, the bell's purpose is only known once it rings.
Notice how, in other instances in the poem (such as in line 12), the poet presents the subject first, followed by a dash. What is the effect of isolating the subject with a dash at the beginning of a phrase?
1 Gerard Manley Hopkins, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918.
The meaning of "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" surrounds the idea that all things desire to express their inner selves in order to reveal their purpose and reflect their creator. The Kingfisher is a vibrant blue and orange bird that appears to “catch fire” when it glistens in the sun.
The English priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1899) wrote "As Kingfishers Catch Fire."
"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" was written in 1877 while Gerard Manley Hopkins was studying theology in North Wales. It was previously thought to be written in later years.
The first line of "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" uses the poetic technique of alliteration.
Common themes in "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" are the expression of identity and creation as a reflection of God.
Who is the author of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’?
Gerard Manley Hopkins
What are two key themes found in ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’?
Expression of identity and creation as a reflection of God
Which literary device does the first line of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ use?
Which of the following things is not described in the poem?
What is a Kingfisher?
A blue and orange bird
What does Hopkins mean when he says that “Kingfishers catch fire” and “dragonflies draw flame”?
Kingfishers and dragonflies appear like fire as they shine iridescently in the sun’s light.
What does Hopkins say that “Christ plays in ten thousand places”?
Because Christians believe that Christ lives within them.
Which of the following is not true about the poem’s form?
It is written in iambic pentameter
How are the 14 lines of the poem broken up?
Into an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (6 lines)
What is Hopkins referring to in the line: “Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name”?
A bell‘s clapper swinging to make it ring
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