[As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame]

Poem: [As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kíngfìshers cátch fìre, drágonflìes dráw fláme;
As túmbled óver rím in róundy wélls
Stónes rìng; like éach tùcked stríng tèlls, éach hùng béll’s
Bòw swúng fìnds tóngue to flíng òut bróad its náme;
Éach mòrtal thíng dòes óne thìng ánd the sáme:
Déals òut that béing índòors éach òne dwélls;
Sélves—gòes itsélf; mysélf it spéaks and spélls;
Crỳing Whát I dó is mé: for thát I cáme.

Í sày móre: the júst màn jústicés;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his góings gráces;
Ácts in Gód’s èye whát in Gód’s èye he ís—
Chríst—for Chríst pláys in tén thòusand pláces,
Lóvely in límbs, and lóvely in éyes nòt hís
To the Fáther thróugh the féatures óf mèn’s fáces.


This poem arouses in me a curious emotion, something like a nostalgia for Christianity, only it cannot be true nostalgia, for I have never been Christian. Nor indeed religious at all: though I grew up in a nominally Jewish household, I was an atheist from the moment I was competent to form my own opinions, and my “religious” growth from that point on was primarily a matter of coming to reject merely “cultural” Judaism as insipid, a walking, mocking skeleton of the faith that once invigorated it.

Yet there remains something in me—perhaps not the best part of me, perhaps it is only the nihilistic, world-weary, rest-seeking part of me—nonetheless there is some part of me that longs for a kind of Christianity, that longs to be able to acknowledge my wretchedness before the glory and mercy of God. Why, exactly, I should feel this, I do not know, but may guess. I suspect that it would allow me to view what I recognize as wretchedness and smallness as perversion of something purer, and not as all there is. Yet I know it is all there is; thus Christianity is closed to me. Whence the nostalgia.

As I said, it is only a part of me that knows this longing, because only a part of me views myself as wretched, and not necessarily the best part. It is only when that part is stirred that the nostalgia comes—and this poem stirs it.

The octet of this poem reads as a great affirmation of life, of a kind of self-reliance: “each hung bell’s / bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” The world expresses itself with inexhaustible beauty. And after all, is it not expression we want. Here Emerson:

For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

The octet, taken by itself seems enough. But immediately it is shown not to be enough: “I say more.” And what is the more? Precisely that man does not merely express himself, but that he “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ—”. Now all this self-reliance of nature seems small, and seems small precisely because it is mere self-reliance. Thus it lacks in loveliness, the lovely flickering of Christ’s features like flame through our faces.

Here a word on the metrical side of this poem, which I have heretofore avoided, is requisite. The poem’s first line is perhaps the most perfect line in the history of English poetry, with its subtle interactions between the dipodic rhythm and alliteration (king/catch and drag/draw alliterating for primary stresses; fish/fire/flies alliterating on the secondary stresses) that are then carried upward by the line-ending clashing accents (draw flame), with “flame” picking up the alliteration of the secondary stresses and giving it completion. It is a line of unparalleled mastery, a miracle, the greatest advertisement imaginable for the expressive powers of sprung rhythm.

Yet in its own way the final line is equally a miracle. It is a miracle precisely because it violates the expectations of sprung rhythm. For, if sprung rhythm rests on one requirement, it is that a stress is a stress. Lines in sprung rhythm will happily require the demotion of normally stressed words to mere secondary stresses (e.g. “fire” in line one), but only rarely is a normally unstressed syllable heightened to take on a stress. Precisely this, however, occurs not once but twice in the final line of this poem. By the principles of pure sprung rhythm, the line should have only three primary stresses: Fath-/feat-/face-. But the poem demands that it have five stresses, so “through” and “of” must be promoted. The result is a line that is extraordinarily light, diaphanous, the opposite of the density at which Hopkins excelled. The first line tells us of kingfishers catching fire and dragonflies drawing flame, but it is only in this final line that we see the true flickering of the divine flame.

It is unbearably beautiful, so beautiful that the sestet makes the octet seem paltry, destroys all satisfaction it once gave. In so doing it reawakens the main anxiety I have about self-reliance in a world without God or natures. For even Emerson, in singing self-reliance, insists that what is found in the end is impersonal, even if we must tunnel into ourselves to find it. He does not call this impersonal by the name of “Christ,” but structurally his thought mirrors Hopkins’ in this poem. And next to this beautiful impersonal, this impersonal that lacks all the flaws and partialities of this wretched body I am, what joy is there in the now meager self-reliance of the kingfisher and dragonfly—a self-reliance, note, that is equally enjoyed by the lifeless stone? It is in this that brings to the fore my latent nostalgia.

I do not mean to endorse it, nor to reject it. It is an aspect of myself with which I am still coming to terms. This poem has done me the service of making it apparent.

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