From Love to God: On Hopkins’ "As kingfishers catch fire…"

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame…
Gerard Manley Hopkins

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 speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—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.


I’ve used the Bartleby version above, because it has accents, and I think that’s neat.

The animate either “catch fire” or “draw flame,” and what is curious is that they may conjure spirit, but participate in it? From the animate, we move to the inanimate – stones that tumble, strings that vibrate, bells that “fling.” The center of the complete list is “stones,” as they move in the way the birds and insects did, freely, not tied down, although it is into the darkness. The strings and bells are in one location when they make their motion to tell something.

It is curious that stones “ring,” when that word would have been more appropriate for bells. We are moving not just from animate to inanimate, or from one type of motion to another, though. We are also moving from things on fire to things that cause fire, to sounds made from motion, to articulate sounds made from being held at rest, to finally names being articulated. There is a movement from spirit to the word, and all things in these first four lines move in some way.

In the second stanza, there is no mention of fire, and no mention of word in the sense above. It is as if spirit moved to word to end the first stanza, and Spirit has completely disappeared in the second one. The “just man” who “keeps grace” is in motion, and God and Christ are at rest, most significantly: the “just man” is in “God’s eye,” as if he is the spark in the divine, and Christ is in all of us, only in motion because we are, and most visible not in our doings, but in our manner.


  1. Quite the poetic flurry here. I like it. Though I have a hard time reading this one. I’m too busy I guess.

    I was worried that there was a bigger problem with blogger yesterday when you told me about the missing ‘leave a comment’ button. When I was editing the post blogger had encountered an error. So, I went back and republished. No problem, or so I thought. It does look like just an isolated incident. My other post has the comment button. Oh, well!

  2. Hey first thanx for visiting my blog ( and leaving a comment. It helps to know I’m not just hurtling words into cyberspace. Makes me want to keep on writing. =)

    As for Hopkins, this poem took me a couple of times over to really digest it. It is a very interesting poem. I’ll take it on a little at a time…

    When you said the center of the complete list is “stones,” it immediately brings to mind the Bible verse, “…and the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…” – referring to Jesus who is the center of all things. And I also thought of Jesus’ words, “…and upon this rock I shall build my church…” Can’t be too sure why “it is into the darkness” that it moves, but one can certainly point out that there are times when the Church seems to move in that direction…

    I’d like to comment on when you said “there is a movement from spirit to the word…[then]…Spirit completely disappeared…” Can we say “Holy Trinity?” God in the Spirit created the world, and through the Spirit communicated and commanded His people. Then the Word, Who is God, was made flesh. And no longer did people rely on the Spirit for there was Christ, the Word, personified!

    And so for us, we must act as we think God wants us to act – like Christ. “Christ plays in ten thousand places” because we must become Christ-like in order to get to Heaven (“…no one comes to the Father except through Me…”) God must be able to look at us and see His Son in order for Him to accept us as His children in Heaven.

    Well, if it sounds like I’m rambling, I apologize. As you probably know, when you think about heavenly things, it gets a little complicated inside your head. No matter though, I’m sure God knows exactly what I’m talking about – eventhough other people don’t. =D Anyway, I like the poem.

  3. Anyone who reads Hopkins and comments on him is to be commended. I’ve only read a little bit but have always enjoyed it even if it was a bit beyond me. Maybe a bit like Sam listening to the Elves.

    I wonder if “kingfisher catches fire” isn’t a reference to Christ?

  4. @ Kent – could also be a reference to the Apostles. The point is more or less the least of Creation reflects the Creator.

  5. Hopkins is in my top 10 poets list. His work is such lovely wordage/soundage/meaning concentrated. Reading him out loud or hearing him read aloud is mandatory. Preferably with a Welsh or Irish accent ;>)

    “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 Whát I do is me: for that I came.”

    What we are is what we do and what we do is who we are. Hopkins writes from a Christian POV (since he was a priest). This particular poem is about how Christianity moves through the world using those who accept Christ as their faith. Christians have become the Word manifest, whether they speak or remain silent and show only by their actions their acceptance of Christ’s teachings.

    “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
    Chríst—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.”

    Christ in the faithful, the “just”, is in God’s eyes the spirit of Christ (now this gets into a very Eastern mode of believing–that the same spirit can be shared by the many, i.e. Oversoul). I’m surprised that Hopkins’s poetry didn’t see him brought up before a Catholic “inquisition,” because they don’t seem to play to the Catholic book or rules all the time. Nonetheless, he was a brilliant poet. Perhaps he didn’t expose his work to the hierarchy of the Church.

  6. That was a helpful exposition.
    Strange how the lovely meaning comes accross strongly in spite of or because of the strange grammar. It’s true about the reading. I first heard “Glory be to god for…” at school by our english teacher’s boyfriend who she’d brought in specialy. It started my interest in poetry. I already had an interest in the english teacher.

  7. The stone image is what really grabs me. It could be an allusion to the words of Christ in Luke 19. 40:

    “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (NIV)

  8. I see “the man” in the second stanza as our belief and faith in God. I believe this based on the words that Hopkins chooses when he states that:

    “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, … To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

  9. people i just started a poetry course in my university, you guys are fans i suppose i will become one in time. no doubt Hopkins is a good writer, but hey the lenghths poets go to to express a point is intense

  10. Not for this particular poem, but for all of G.M.’s work: I taught English at the high school and college levels for 33 years, and I am still ‘blown away’ by most of his stuff. He is magnificent. Only one poet comes close: Wallace Stevens.

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