Not only as a poet but also as a nature writer, Hopkins anticipated writers who followed him. He was interested in the distinctive qualities of things and the relationship of the creatures and objects in the environment to human observers. For the focused and patterned essence of things Hopkins coined the term “inscape,” analogous to the word “landscape.” As the critical dimension of landscape is breadth, so the critical dimension of inscape is depth. The perception of inscape, Hopkins found, requires concentration and imaginative sensitivity. It is aided by the active energy of the object perceived—an energy that maintains the inscape and projects it to observers. Hopkins called this force and action “instress.”
In his journals and in his poems, Hopkins often described inscapes figuratively, as he does in the opening quatrain of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” The opening line seems unremarkable at first, merely two pretty descriptions cast in terms of flashes of light and color, but given what follows, this line may convey more. If the fire of the kingfishers and the flame of the dragonflies are seen to recall the fire of Moses’s burning bush in the third chapter of Exodus and the coming of the Holy Spirit like tongues of flame on Pentecost, kingfishers and dragonflies are in essence touched with divinity. The following lines underscore the individuality of inscapes. The later characterization of God by his eye stresses God’s fundamental attentiveness, and the characterization of men by their faces stresses humanity’s inherent expectation. The verb in “Christ plays” is especially interesting for the complex of qualities in Christ’s inscape and instress that it suggests: both constant activity (as a fountain plays) and rapidly shifting activity (as firelight plays), both easy and enjoyable activity (as a child plays) and competent activity (as a musician plays).
Hopkins made his poetry a part of his vocation as a priest. In “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” as in several other poems, he responded to the religious crisis of the Victorian era—the perceived conflict between science and faith—not by retreating into Romantic medievalism or art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism or by falling into agnostic or atheistic despair, but by looking closely at the world around him and finding in it evidences of God’s presence and God’s grace.
The poem inscapes more than it describes explicitly. As kingfishers catch fire, as dragonflies draw flame, as bells and stones ring out their names, as the Holy Spirit, God’s presence and God’s grace, manifests itself in the action of mortal things, and as Christ, God’s grace and God’s person, manifests himself in the living and the doing of humankind, so do poets compose and readers read.
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