The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 587 words.)