In his poem, "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame," Hopkins works with a structure similar to his "The Windhover" in which the major poetic turn occurs between the opening octave and the closing sestet. We can read the first stanza of the poem as an emphasis upon the maxim or notion that every living thing has its proper place in the world. Here, Hopkins plays with such poetic devices as internal rhyme scheme, alliteration, and unusual syntax to create a distinctive sense of sound reflected also in the subject matter of the first five lines:
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.
If we unpack the syntax of the second and third lines, we understand their literal meaning; the stones ring, or make a ringing sound, as they fall over the edges of rounded wells. Hopkins not only stresses the assonants in these lines in order to invoke the actual sound of the stones, but also he enjambs the two lines and realigns their syntax in order to pattern the tumbling of the stones into the wells. In lines 3-4, Hopkins then creates a very similar image which is, nevertheless, even more difficult to unpack. Here, he refers to the swinging of a bell in which the lip, arch, or "bow" of the bell rises up to one side, and then meets the bell's "tongue," or chime, which casts out a sound into the surrounding world. By referring to the ring of the bell as the sounding of its "name," Hopkins seems to suggest that the bell's sound is its definition, or perhaps, its essence. Thus in the first five lines, we see that all objects or living things are defined by their corresponding actions; we are, essentially, what we do. Hopkins, therefore, summarizes these images in the last three lines of the first stanza when he states:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying out What I do is me: for this I came.
Whether it is intentional or not, these last few lines of the octave seem to act as a concrete response to Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not At Their Convent's Quiet Rooms" in which all beings can find contentment in their place in the world (this "place" being both a physical space and an action, or purpose). Hopkins' notion of "dwelling indoors" in our separate spaces seems to invoke Wordsworth's conception of "the cell" or "the convent room," and certainly we get a physical sensation of something like a church or convent in Hopkins' first stanza of the poem through the echoing bell sounds of the first four lines. Nevertheless, the last lines of the octave seem to hint at something selfish behind this Wordsworthian notion of finding spiritual calm in our personal spaces and activities, and, in fact, Hopkins reveals in the next stanza that such an attitude is not enough, spiritually speaking, and is far from the ideal notion of religious piety:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Christ. 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. [lines 7-12]
Here, Hopkins turns to the conception of Christ as the every-man, and in doing so rejects the theme of the first stanza. All "men," Hopkins suggests, must not simply act in correspondence with a personal duty or calling, but rather all men should "act" as "Christ." This recognition of Christ as someone, or even something, which exists in all men thus suggests that our only calling is , in fact, to become Christ himself. Hopkins seems to be quite literal in this suggestion, and in doing so he takes the notion of Christ's resurrection, the mortal passage into the afterlife, and the communal consumption of Christ's body and blood to a very serious and extreme level.
Is Hopkins pointing to certain passages in the Bible and rejecting others in this assertion? Do you agree that this poem can also serve as a response to Romanticism, and if so how also does it respond to other Victorian notions of occupying a certain human space in the world? (Think, for example, of E.B. Browning, the Rossettis, and Tennyson).
The poem begins with images of fire in the first line and moves into images of water in the second line. Can we interpret the use of such elements as corresponding with the vocabulary of religious symbolism and iconography? And if so, how do these lines relate to the final stanza of the poem? How do we reconcile ourselves with the fact that Hopkins' examples of the actions of "mortal things" in the first stanza all involve animals and objects rather than human beings? Hopkins is essentially pointing to a very existential question of why we exist and why we come into the world in addressing and then rejecting the claim: "What I do is me: for that I came." How literally do you think Hopkins wishes us to take this notion of "man as Christ," and can his use of objects in the first stanza key us into an underlying theme of transubstantiation in the poem?
Finally, the poem is untitled and, therefore, is named by its first line "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame." On a very literal, or subjective, level what does this line mean? And how does it stand apart, stylistically, thematically or otherwise from the rest of the poem?
Last modified 17 November 2003
Last modified 17 November 2003