Hopkins Lectures 2004

'As Kingfishers Catch Fire'. . . analysis of Imagery

Desmond Egan Poet, Artistic Director The Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival

Desmond Egan analyses 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' line by line, word by word. Though the theme is abstract, intellectual, there is not a single abstract noun in the poem. Abstraction is the enemy of poetry ....

Abstraction is the enemy of poetry and Hopkins did not need reminding of this: despite the essentially intellectual nature of his theme, there is not a single abstract noun in 'As Kingfishers ...'. Hopkins, in full energy, makes the experience present rather than talking about it; and it is good to be there. Desmond Egan analyses this great Hopkins poem line by line, word by word.

The autograph draft of this sonnet is undated and the poem, untitled. Large colons in front of lines 9, 11, and 12 indicate that their first syllable is stressed; while a large colon between 'grace' and 'that' shows that both words are to be stressed.

Norman MacKenzie dates the sonnet to March or April of 1877 during the time Hopkins was in St. Beuno's and wrote nine sonnets in pastoral Wales. (These included 'God's Grandeur' 'The Starlight Night', 'In the Valley of the Elwy', 'The Windhover' and 'Hurrahing in Harvest' - all of which he dated; and 'For Spring' , 'The Caged Skylark' 'As Kingfishers..' and 'The Lantern out of Doors', which he did not). Surely a'wonder-year' - in MacKenzie's words and one which poet Paul Mariani, in his Commentary has described convincingly as one of growing metrical complexity: Hopkins at the height of his powers - or close to it.

Hopkins was was 33 years old. We are dealing here with a completed work of art. The imagery of the poem has a corresponding coherence - and is often, perhaps, not fully understood.

First of all, here is the text of the poem.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
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 speak and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for thatI came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Chríst - for Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

It starts with a confident assumption: the simile of the first line is based on a comparison of succeeding metaphors: the lightning flight of the kingfisher seems to turn him into a firebolt; the sudden dart of a dragonfly draws (or attracts) a brilliance comparable to that of a fierce blue flame (MacKenzie refers to the blast of a blowpipe).
Hopkins is not finished with his polymetaphorical simile, introducing another - that of stones falling down into a 'roundy' well and echoing with their own material - before he makes the straight comparison in line 5: Each mortal thing does one thing and the same Next he compares these three effects with those of two others before proceeding - in best Scholastic, syllogistic fashion - to a synthesis. In a similar way, he says, each musical string when plucked ('tucked'), sounds, is counted, has its impact ('tells' is used as in 'telling' the beads of the rosary) by making its distinctive, definitive note.

MacKenzie suggests another meaning: that the sound tells of the creator - but it seems to me unnecessary to anticipate Hopkins's thesis - particularly when he is dealing with the natural and the inanimate insofar as each is uniquely itself, before he moves onto another level of significance. He is not quite ready to do that yet, until the bell comparison is made.This image includes an example of Hopkins's excited use of a technical term (I think of Shakespeare's 'know a hawk from a handsaw'. a hawk being a large trowel for cement; of Emily Dickenson's 'valves' of attention, referring to the valves or half-doors; or of Hopkins's own 'rung on the rein' in "The Windhover' of the same year where 'ring' means 'to rise spirally'. Poets enjoy such precise, technical words). 'Bow' means the sound-bow of a bell - the lower part, where the hammer strikes and where the note finds its greatest amplification. So: every hanging bell, whenstruck, throws out ('broad' is an adverb meaning 'abroad') its special sound or 'name'.
As a Classical scholar, Hopkins would also have been aware that nemo in Greek means 'to allot, distribute' and that one subsidiary meaning of 'nomos', the masculine noun, is 'a distinctive music'. (Even I knew that!). As an aside: I would like to see some Greek scholar, Brian Arkins for example, address this topic of the influence of Greek on Hopkins's writing in a full-length study. I know it has been touched- on at various times in lectures on Hopkins's syntax etc. - but in my opinion it fundamentally affects the way he uses English - and even sees or hears it. (Anyone who grapples with Greek ends up with a changed perception of English).I am convinced, for example, that Hopkins's loving delay in Spring and Fall on 'Margaret', where he marks an extra, long, accent on the final syllable, has less to do with making a line of tetrameter (as MacKenzie suggests) in what is, after all, a 'sprung' line - than with the Classicist's awareness of the Greek root 'margarita' meaning 'daisy' (or pearl); and with his sense of the dramatic irony implicit here. The movement in 'As Kingfishers..' so far, has been from nature, animate and inanimate, to what is man-made: from kingfisher, dragonfly and stone to string and bell.Now Hopkins - and the poem - moves on towards the purely human. When he talks about 'each mortal thing', we remember that stone, string and bell are not 'mortal', subject to 'mors', death.(Again, that Classical awareness of roots). Our reading of the sonnet should emphasise this by accenting the word 'mortal' as the development which it is. Each human, every created, and therefore 'mortal' thing also has one distinctive, defining function: a single raison d'etre, of which the earlier imagery provides reminders. It is interesting to see that Hopkins reaches for another metaphor to put words on this: 'being indoors each one dwells'.The metaphor, 'dwelling indoors', living inside oneself, can only apply to the human and not to kingfisher or stone or the like. The metaphor is one which Hopkins also explores in 'The Lantern Out of Doors' (written in the same year) and even more obviously in 'The Candle Indoors' which he wrote in Oxford in 1879, less than two years later: Some candle clear burns somewhere I come by. I muse at how its being puts blissful back With yellowy moisture mild night's blear-all black... Come you indoors, come home; your fading fire Mend first and vital candle in close heart's vault; You there are master, do your own desire; What hinders? (p158) Notice how these lines also move from candle to the human protagonist: a progression similar to that which we are discussing. Note also in the above lines Hopkins's use of the word 'being': it is similar to the usage in 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire': the Scholastic 'ens', that which defines or is the essence of any creature or thing. This idea has been expressed metaphorically up to now, a complicated idea which evokes the convolutions of typical Hopkinsian phraseology: Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells Crying What I do is me - for that I came Again, despite the prose comment, Hopkins depends on imagery to bring across the denseness of his meaning, employing a personification and direct speech.
Hopkins'is use of the noun as verb in 'selves' prefigures a later, analogous use of adjective as verb in, The just man justices... and puts us in mind of a similar usage in 'To What Serves Mortal Beauty' (probably from 1885): World's loveliest - men's selves. Self flashes off frame and face... (p.183) As the poem moves towards experiencing afresh and more explicitly the Christian vision at its core, Hopkins again resorts to the image of 'going' meaning 'living' (while he enjoys the connecting alliteration of 'goings' and 'graces' and that echo of the double syllable ending on -s, which make a para-assonance here). Once again the words quicken into a richer sense, and imagery is at its core: Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is - Christ. It is like the moment in 'The Windhover' when the kestrel, already charged with metaphorical force, is explicitly compared in his mastery to Christ: Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! The image of Christ's 'playing', in line 11 of 'As Kingfishers...' may owe something - as MacKenzie suggests - to St. Paul's expression: It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2 19-20) Zo de ouketi ego, Ze(i) de en emoi Xhristos Hopkins's own Notebooks can also help here, with their many descriptions of the natural world, observed with the intensity of one who found in its richness an image of the beauty of the Creator. Take for example his entry in the 1870 Journal: I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it. It(s inscape) is (mixed of) strength and grace, like an ash tree. (Humphry House edition p.134) In one of his short Commentaries on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius ('Contemplatio ad Obtinendum Amorem') written circa 1881, we read, All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them (,) give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him. (House ed. p.342).
Another possible influence may be that of St. Patrick's Breastplate, a prayer, of which Hopkins was very fond, and which contains the lines,

Christ be before me
Christ be behind me
Christ be beneath me
Christ be above;

Christ on my right hand
Christ on my left hand.

The earlier version of the last two lines in Hopkins's poem reads,

Lives in limbs, and looks through eyes not his
With lovely yearning

I believe that Hopkins's use of the verb 'plays' here is intransitive - as in the expression 'the play of light across the river': not, as MacKenzie suggests, transitive (playing something).

That final metaphor in the poem is an intensive one: Christ plays through the human being - but he does so to (or for) his own Father. It introduces both the metaphor of 'play' in something, as well as the further one of doing so under the approving eyes of a father. This poem certainly exemplifies Hopkins's poetical reliance on imagery to recreate his sense and feeling. Time and again we notice his shifting gear into new or developed comparisons. In all, I count in these 14 lines no fewer than 15 images (either metaphors or similes) - indicative of the amazingly fertile springs of the poet's imagination. Nearly every image is one of movement, of 'being':

'catch..draw..ring..tells..finds..fling..does..deals out..being..goes.. speaks..spells.. crying..say.. justices..keeps..keeps..acts..is.. plays.. .

'Twenty verbs. This movement is related to the theme and - like some Shakespeare sonnet - such recurrence and development have a subliminal effect in reinforcing the theme of selving through action. As Charles Lock remarks, Things in this sonnet have no existence without action. (Essays in Criticism, April 1984) Hopkins is not offering us a prosaic idea - what an obscure poet, writing about a Swedish pianist has called 'the summary of an emotion': no, he is re-presenting the gestalt of a number of experiences, ideas, emotions which came together in what we call an 'inspiration' and doing it with the fresh response, the immediacy, which only art can give us. Making the whole excitement present again.

This is why real poetry does not grow old; and why we need it. It is the language of feeling. The great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888 - 1935), said it was his custom, to think with the emotions and feel with the mind (text 131 The Book of Disquiet) and in another entry (298) he marvellously dramatises the psyche of the creative writer, one caught up by life so totally that a ride on a streetcar, leading him to experience vicariously the lives of passengers, clothes, their factories, workers, 'managers trying to stay calm', their private lives, The whole world opens up before my eyes merely because in front of me - on the nape of a dark-skinned neck whose other side has I don't know what face - I see a regularly irregular dark-green embroidery on a light-green dress. (p. 290) and from that, the loves, secrets, souls of all who helped make the dress; and then the seats in the tram take him to distant places, workers, houses, lives, realities, everything ... so that, I get off the streetcar dazed and exhausted. I've just lived all of life.

Hopkins was no different. Time and again, too, we can notice that, like Pessoa, he invokes the concrete rather than any abstraction: the instinct of a genuine poet. In this regard, some lines from a recent Collection, The World Returning, by contemporary English poet Lawrence Sail are worth quoting:

As when you gingerly open prayerful hands to see what you have caught, that has been tickling your palms with wings or feelers, and you find only the thought of something bright and precise, that must have somehow zig-zagged back to the sky, its image too soon blurred to an idea. (Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK, 2002)

How easily a fresh moment or feeling can be lost in words that slide back from life towards the 'idea'.

Abstraction is the enemy of poetry and Hopkins did not need reminding of this: despite the essentially intellectual nature of his theme, there is not a single abstract noun in 'As Kingfishers ... '.

Hopkins, in full energy, makes the experience present rather than talking about it; and it is good to be there.

There are two grammatical problems posed by the poem: two places where we are left somewhat puzzled by the language he employs. In each case, attention to the imagery can help. One, the easier, occurs in the final lines,

... 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.

Grammatically, the structure is 'Christ plays..to the Father'. I have always been a little puzzled by this: you do not ordinarily play 'to' someone, unless it be music. Why not 'for' the Father? The earlier imagery, however, can help us towards the basic idea - that the presence of Christ may be found in play in other human beings, and so guided towards the Father. I do not believe there is any musical imagery intended here: it is unprepared for and would be out of place - even somewhat crude, perhaps. I feel the same about any hint of drama, of being in a play - MacKenzie's suggestion of a metaphor from the stage notwithstanding.

The second lexical problem is more serious and has widely puzzled commentators: ... like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name The word 'like', we know, is an adjective: 'He is an athlete like his father'. It is not a conjunction: 'He is an athlete like his father was' is a barbarism of language; yet Hopkins at first sight seems to use the word as if it were a conjunction. (That may be all very well for newspapers commentators and RTE newsreaders - but we're talking here about Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

I feel certain that the poet would not have countenanced such a brutalising of his beloved English - so what is the explanation for this apparent lèse majesté?

Firstly, we know why he did not repeat the 'as': any poet worth his salt will avoid repetition of a word or phrase unless for some compelling reason: repetition generally represents a lack of energy - whereas poetry is the utilisation of all the resources of language: maximum energy.

Hopkins does not wish or need to repeat; besides, he has an additional nuance to convey. Accordingly, he gets around his language problem and I think that careful attention to the imagery and an awareness of the occasionally stylised use of language which this poem exhibits can show us how. Initially, Hopkins offers us images of 'selving' or of 'inscape' in nature; the 'string' and 'bell' examples continue this pattern. Now, to avoid repetition, he invokes the word 'like' as an adverb. It can mean either 'likely' ('it is likely that') or - perhaps more probably - 'in the same way', 'similarly'. So 'like each tucked string tells...' means 'in the same way, each tucked string tells ... (We know that 'like' may be used as a prepositional adverb - as in the construction, 'You, like me, own a Toyota' meaning, ' similar in this respect').The nuance can be conveyed in the speaking voice for which Hopkins always catered and in the service of which he employed 'sprung rhythm':

'My verse is less to be read than heard' ( letter to R B pp 44-47) 'Why do I employ sprung rhythm at all? Because it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech ... )

There are antecedents for Hopkins's adverbial usage of 'like', notably in Shakespeare's sonnet 87: Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing And like enough thou know'st thy estimate - here 'like' is used as Hopkins uses the word, meaning 'it is likely (that)'. If we understand the word in this way in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, the meaning is 'it is likely that /in the same way, each tucked string tells ...'. This sense must then emerge from the reading of the sonnet (a recent CD recording of some Hopkins poems misses this entirely; it is not the only nuance missed).

The poet gives us a hint in that the 'like' in the poem is preceded by a semi-colon - almost a full stop. Remember that if 'like' were misused as a conjunction there could be no such stop before it, since a conjunction by definition is a link word ('con-jungo': 'I join together'). (Of course 'like' may be used as a prepositional adverb - as in the construction, 'You, like me, own a Toyota' (meaning, ' similar in this respect'). Such usage accords with Hopkins's propensity towards charged, unexpected, slightly antiquarian use of language in this sonnet: we recognise it in 'tells', in 'bow', in 'one thing and the same' in 'keeps grace' , in 'plays' and even in 'to the Father'. Hopkins was undoubtedly avant garde in his style - but there was also the other side to him: his willingness to experiment with older verse-forms such as the Welsh cynghanned (an elaboration of internal rhyme and alliteration); with the sonnet form, petrarchan and shakespearean, which he could be said to have re-invented (just as Berryman, a Hopkinsite, would do in our time); and of course his fascination with Classical Greek syntax ...

Another consideration: like many a poet, Hopkins can sometimes look to control and even to disguise his feeling in stylised diction. (Stylisation in art is often an indication of strong emotion coupled with a reluctance, even a shyness, at expressing it).

As a sustained modern example of this, take the Dream Sonnets of John Berryman, himself a great admirer of Hopkins,

All these deaths leave Henry pale and ill
And unable to sail through an autumn world, and weak;
A disadvantage of surviving ...

To conclude. It is worthwhile going carefully into the world of a Hopkins poem because, as with any poem which deserves the name, there is a world there. An experience; a search; a sideways-glimpse out another window; a part-discovery; a pushing of words almost beyond themselves. A poem must re-enact such discovery, not talk about it, reduce it to some banal formula or, worse, treat it as autobiographical commentary (the temptation, perhaps, of some academic critics, Norman White among them).

In such a complex, impossible, attempt (how can words become experience?), Hopkins calls on imagery, the hint of something unutterable, something irreducible to bald prose 'explanation' as he searches and discovers.

As always with Hopkins, the experience is real, intense and complex - and, true poet that he is, imagery is at the mysterious heart of it. '... like each tucked string tells,' : the problem lies in his use of 'like'.

'Like' as we know, and as Fowler insists in his Modern English Usage (pub.1926; 1964 ed.) is not a conjunction, or link-word, joining two phrases: 'Few have achieved like you have' is strictly incorrect, though a commonplace of language: it should be 'Few have achieved as you have' - 'as' being a conjunction or link-word. 'Like' may be used as the equivalent of a prepositional adverb: 'You treat me like a fool' or ' She behaves like a queen' i.e. it can mean, as here, 'similarly to'.

Again, 'like' may be used as a prepositional adverb - as in the construction, 'You, like me, own a Toyota' (meaning, ' similar in this respect').

Desmond Egan, Poet and Artistic Director
Review of Norman White Hopkins Biography

Gerard Manley Hopkins in Ireland

Hopkins in Kildare