Next Tuesday is the birthday of one of the most innovative poets of the nineteenth century, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1899), a name every homeschool literature student should know. In Hopkins’ honor, our homeschool poem-of-the-week for this fourth week of July is one of his masterpieces: “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”
Hopkins was a religious poet and he is famously difficult, but if you approach him with the right attitude — an almost scientific, puzzle-solving attitude — you’ll be richly rewarded. If your high-school homescholars can learn to decode Hopkins they’ll be more than ready for college-level work.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire
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:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all 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.
Like Emily Dickinson in America, Gerard Manley Hopkins in Britain was seemingly born in the wrong century. The vast majority of his work, like Dickinson’s, was not published until some years after his death, and it was only after World War I that he came to be recognized as one of the great poets of the Victorian era.
Hopkins grew up in an exceptionally creative family, full of artists and illustrators and musicians and writers — a family that was also devoutly religious in the Anglican tradition. Gerard himself rejected his Anglican upbringing, eventually converting to Catholicism and becoming a Jesuit priest, which led to estrangement from his family.
Hopkins’ poetry is regarded as difficult because it bends English grammar and syntax almost to the breaking point. He likes to change nouns into verbs and he likes to coin new words to express abstract philosophical ideas.
Beginners sometimes think Hopkins’ writing sounds like a jumble, but in fact it’s just the opposite. In this week’s poem, before you try to work out the meaning, look first at the intricate structure. Far from being chaotic, “Kingfishers” is actually a perfectly regular sonnet, one of the most tightly fitted of all poetic forms. More specifically, it’s what’s called a Petrarchan sonnet, divided into an eight-line octave that sets up a topic, and then a six-line sestet that resolves or concludes the topic. Semicolons and colons carefully mark the elements Hopkins is describing and comparing, and the rhyme-scheme is regular and precise: ABBA ABBA CDCDCD.
But what’s it about? You almost have to translate Hopkins into ordinary English first, to get the basic meaning, and then return to the original to appreciate how the meaning plays out. This poem expresses an idea in Hopkins’ Catholic theology: that human beings are made in Christ’s image. The octave sets up the idea by describing the lesser mortal things of this world — animals and inanimate objects — and how they all give voice to some inner essence that is distinctive of themselves. Here’s my prose “translation”:
Just as kingfishers “catch fire” (flash orange);
Just as dragonflies “draw flame” (glint iridescence);
Just as stones ring when they tumble into deep wells;
Just as the string on an instrument, when plucked, speaks its distinct sound;
Just as a bell, when rung, rings out its special tone;
Just so, all mortal things in this world express their own inner selves:
They shout “this is what I am — to do this is why I am here.”
Now Hopkins makes the religious turn in the sestet: what about us? Do we also express our inner essence like all those lesser beings? We do. And what is that inner essence? For Hopkins the Catholic theologian, our inner essence is the image of Christ and his righteousness. Here’s a prose translation of the sestet:
But just men do even more than these lesser beings:
They enact justice in their lives (Hopkins makes the noun “justice” into a verb);
They enact Christ’s grace in their lives — that is how God sees them;
Christ’s image is reflected (“plays”) in all they do,
And what they do is beautiful to God,
Just as a child’s face is forever beautiful to its father.
Hopkins was a master of sound — his poems are meant not just to be read, but to be heard. Go back from my translation to the original text and listen to how he makes his words “speak” the things themselves in lines like “tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring” (you can almost hear the stone bouncing off the walls and echoing all the way down); or in “each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name” — the line itself almost vibrates like a giant bell. (How many “-ng” sounds can you count?)
Hopkins was not only a religious poet, but he was also quite a nature poet in many ways. If “Kingfishers” captures your imagination, fly over to “The Windhover” next, another Hopkins masterpiece that has captivated many a student’s heart.
What other wonderful words have you found and what literary discoveries have you made in your homeschool this Hercules Term? 😊
❡ As kingfishers catch fire: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 😊
❡ Literary lives: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Gerard Manley Hopkins) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. 🖋
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list (riverhouses.org/newsletter) to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar (riverhouses.org/calendars) to follow along with us as we visit forty-eight of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖