As Kingfishers Catch Fire

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” conveys Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sacramental vision that each creature and even each object in the world constantly announces its individuality, and that in so doing, in its own active and perceptible way it proclaims God’s grace. As a young man preparing for a career in art, Hopkins had been a close and penetrating observer of his surroundings. After his conversion to Roman Catholicism, this interest in the nature of things took the more spiritual cast that is reflected in this poem.

The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet in which the octave is devoted to the physical world, and the sestet to humanity. The poem begins by noting the play of light on kingfishers (a type of bright-colored bird) and dragonflies and continues with a series of aural images: the sound of a stone striking off the walls of a well, the sound of a plucked string (Hopkins uses the dialectal verb “tucked” rather than “plucked”), the sound of a large bell hung from a bow (as church bells are). In the second half of the octave, Hopkins explains the significance of these images. Ordinary though they are, each of these creatures and each of these objects makes itself, its particular character, known by its tangible, perceptible action. If attended to, the most mundane things are fraught with meaning.

Hopkins begins the sestet by boldly asserting that human beings also express their essential nature in what they do, although this nature is not physical but spiritual and moral. So, for instance, a just person does justice. In doing what he or she is, the person is actualizing God’s purpose in the world, becoming the word of God incarnate—becoming, in fact, the body of Christ. God the Father, contemplating the beauty of each of these embodiments of Christ, is pleased, just as people are pleased by the beauty of kingfishers, dragonflies, and all the world around them.

The composition of this poem is hard to date. After his religious conversion, Hopkins became a Jesuit, and although he was ambitious as a poet he did not allow poetry to distract him from his vocation and did not publish his poems. This poem was found with Hopkins’s papers after his death. Its ideas and wording can be linked to entries in Hopkins’s journal as early as 1880 or as late as 1882. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” was published with Hopkins’s other poems in 1918, when his friend and literary executor, Robert Bridges, thought the time propitious for their appreciation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

Essentially a private poet, Hopkins developed quite distinctive characteristics of style, some of which are evident in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” As a Petrarchan sonnet, the poem is quite conventional in its fourteen five-beat lines and its abba abba cdc dcd rhyme scheme. It is, however, quite unconventional in its rhythm. Hopkins developed what he called “sprung rhythm,” in which a foot consisted of one stressed syllable and any number of unstressed syllables: one, two, three, even four—or none at all. The result can be a perfectly conventional line, such as “Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;” (stress on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables), or a more radical line, such as “Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces” (stress on the first, second, third, seventh, and ninth syllables). Hopkins felt that sprung rhythm approximated the rhythms of normal speech more closely than do the strictly patterned rhythms of conventional poetry, allowing for the fluidity of line and the precise placement of emphasis that readily strike the ear throughout “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”

The poem makes use of other sound qualities as well. Hopkins uses consonance and alliteration to reinforce the poem’s forward impulsion and to emphasize, albeit unobtrusively, relationships in the poem. In the first line subjects and verbs alliterate, helping to establish the connection between creatures and what they do. In the third line “stones” and “string” alliterate, emphasizing the parallel between them. The alliteration of “Father,” “features,” and “faces” in the last line similarly underscores the connection that the poem establishes between God and his people.

Hopkins’s repeated but unobtrusive use of internal rhymes in lines 3-5 (“ring,” “string,” “fling,” and “thing”; “hung,” “swung,” and “tongue”) also serves to move the poem forward and to unify its content. The internal rhyme of “to” and “through” in the last line underscores the relationship of end and means developed in the poem. The poem employs only four end rhymes. These end rhymes are normally used for emphasis and to establish the sonnet’s clearly distinguishable pattern, appropriate to a poem exploring God’s design in the world.

Hopkins was interested in onomatopoeia. The stops in “tucked string tells” imitate the sound of a plucked string, as the nasals of “ring,” “hung,” “swung,” “tongue,” “fling,” and “name” all imitate the resonance of ringing bells—or of stones dropped into wells. The pulses of alliteration and internal rhyme in lines 3-5 also create an onomatopoetic effect suggestive of a ringing bell.

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” makes striking use of synesthesia (a feeling of a sense other than the one being stimulated) also. Hopkins perceived a similarity between the sound of ringing bells and the sight of sparks or fire. The similarity between the abrupt strokes of a bell and the sudden bright flashes of kingfishers and dragonflies underlies the first quatrain and indeed the whole octave of this poem.

In this poem and in others, Hopkins’s diction is sometimes distinctive, even idiosyncratic. The adjective “roundy” is chosen not for metrical reasons (given Hopkins’s sprung rhythm) but to fit the childlike action of dropping stones into open wells. The unexpected verb “tucked” is chosen instead of the more usual “plucked” for its greater onomatopoetic value. “Spells” is chosen for its alliterative value and perhaps also for its ambiguity—it surely denotes signification, and it may also suggest an almost magical action. Most striking are the words Hopkins coins from other parts of speech—“indoors,” “selves,” and “justices.”

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