Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

Growing with a poem seems a quaint triviality. More pressing matters must receive attention. Employment calls for competence, not reflection; the love given to family should be immediate, felt. To tell the truth, I don’t know that I have grown with Hopkins’ devotional below. It’s an amazing simile, maybe a perfect expression of knowledge of God being analogical. As creation sings itself in vibrant ways, as it draws attention to itself and gives memories, we act justly and gracefully and reveal who we are. We hope we will be seen and remembered:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Gerard Manley Hopkins

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 Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices; 
Keeps grace: 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.

Hopkins imagines the Spirit at work in all Creation. Kingfishers catch fire… dragonflies draw flame. Pentecost was no mere encounter with the divine, for the divine allowed humanity to receive inspiration, to use it. Dragonflies draw flame, and I find myself thinking of people who manipulate fire. Fire-breathers at the circus, blacksmiths at the forge.

There are others who manipulate fire. The news has been full of reports of looting and arson, but the news exaggerates to draw the attention of a specific audience. What troubles me are the fires we don’t hear much about. Fires caused by drone missiles and incendiary weapons on civilian targets. Fires because forests and grassland have become drier, become tinderboxes, as global temperatures rise. One might say that imperialism and industrialization are the natural enemies of religious truth. One might say the spirit Hopkins depicts is purer, only sullied by our sin, our estrangement from Creation and Nature.

But if I am to partake in justice and grace, then I need the truth. Not the spirit I would like to witness, but the spirit I must witness takes precedence. And Hopkins’ marveling at Creation, while it rightly takes a darker turn, is used by some to dodge moral complexity where it is most needed. I remember a philosophy professor assigned Hopkins’ poems as a devotional in the readings for his class. I confess it felt strange to see this, because it seemed to promise answers exactly where one had to learn to articulate doubt. The class concerned material about the origins of science, but it ended up talking significantly more about proofs of God’s existence. (Not that these are unrelated topics, but you understand where I’m pointing.)

The animate—kingfishers, dragonflies—give way to the inanimate, and therein lies one aspect of Hopkins’ moral subtlety. He ceases to speak of fire, but continuing to articulate Pentecost, focuses on voice. 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. Stones ring, bells find tongue to say their name. Anything, not just anyone, can make a noise and announce itself. Spirit need not be unambiguously good. It enables us to grow, to become, but we can choose to be selfish. We can choose to be apart from the Maker; He has given the ability to be an individual. Each mortal thing does one thing and the same… myself it speaks and spells.

There’s something about religion and wanting to fit in as an immigrant which can be especially problematic. You’re always going to try extra hard to fit in, to understand your country better than anyone else. To show you love that much more and truly belong. There’s already zealotry at work. Adding religion to the mix can create quite the conflagration. Not simply being aflame with gratitude, giving as much as one can, but burning up with insecurities and anxieties. Wondering if God actually did bring you to this strange land, or whether you are an outcast no matter where you go. I can’t emphasize enough that there are a number of people who must learn to speak and spell themselves, who must make sure their names are pronounced properly and with respect. If they don’t insist on that respect, no one else will give it to them, and no amount of talk about gratefulness and piety can help them overcome the guilt and shame they feel in asking for that respect. The religious tendency is at direct odds with the tendencies needed to survive, with the dignity that must be asserted.

Morality can’t be reduced to a question of selfish or unselfish attitudes. It’s far too complicated for that. A lot of times seeing a selfish attitude can help me judge whether a person is going the right direction or not. But it’s a general indicator, not an established criterion for a good soul.

I should say I never recently believed anything as simple as “all selfish behavior is wrong.” What’s changed for me since I first memorized this poem is the awareness that even characterizing correct behavior as walking with God is too specific. I’m not trying to say “what is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one’s God” is necessarily wrong. I think, rather, that the separation made in that verse is of profound importance.

It’s Hopkins humanism—not his Catholicism, not any sense of religiousness—that makes the moral ideas of the poem resonant. The first stanza leans heavily in the direction of “selfishness is bad, don’t forget to always obey God.” The second opens with a restatement of Paul’s “Christ shall be all in all,” perhaps made more radical: the just man justices; / Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — / Chríst. You are no less than Christ for being just and graceful. God bears witness to you. There is virtually no tradition in these lines, no hint of obeying authorities human or divine. Justice and grace are about your judgment, how you keep all your goings graces. You are seen, it does not matter if you see God. I still am not entirely comfortable with this language, as it seems to me that being a moral person entails having a righteous anger. That tough moral decisions can feel uncomfortable and involve ugly sentiments. Hopkins dresses everything in beauty; the just man justices sounds perfectly vague. It is the hope that we can all be Christ—that genuine moral being entails a near supernatural unity—that finally grounds his moral vision. In striving to be truly moral, we find each other, we find we can communicate in ways we could not before. Through the Father, we are not only seen, but speak to each other: 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.

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