Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poem of the Week 4/30/2011: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

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 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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

(note: the accents are Hopkins', included to clue the reader about words and phrase of extra rhythmic weight)

So! We've taken a direct 180 degree turn from the deadly cathedrals and darkling bass tones of Baudelaire; we now greet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the ever-so-Catholic bard of nature, the choreographer of language. According to various biographical sources (poetry foundation), Hopkins' greatest interest in Catholicism was the doctrine of Real Presence, a doctrine that seems to underpin this poem. Well, "underpin" is the wrong word. Permeate might be better. Or "generates" this poem. If this post were to have a thesis, it would be: "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" establishes an explosive metaphor for the Real Presence, where the energy that men see infusing nature becomes a symbol for or promise of the Christ that is innate in man."

The first stanza is one extended statement about the way natural phenomena display the being in the world, and provides hints about the enormity of this being. Beginning, "As x happens, just like y happens, so does every thing happen." So, just as kingfishers catch fire and dragonflies draw flame, so does each thing in the world display and expose the being that is latent within it. Hopkins underpins this statement with some of the most exciting, rhythmic, active diction around; the strong, varied consonants in lines 2-3, "as tumbled over rim in roundy wells / stones ring," display the rigorous, vigorous energy that Hopkins says dwells in each thing. This energy must be hugely powerful, being "flame," "fire," and "flung out broadly." This flame is representative of the explosive and infinite power of God/Being/Real Presence.

Another aspect of the first stanza. It establishes a viewer who is most definitely human, for the things he describes are on a human scale. If Kingfishers are catching fire, they aren't doing so in an unseen world -- it must be in the perspective of a person who sees a flash of the divine in the natural, over and over.

Hopkins acknowledges a shift immediately, writing "I say more." His topic shifts from the kingfisher and the realm of nature to that of man. What happens when man shines forth, shows his truest being? The poem suggests that he becomes just, for he "justices," and acts with grace. But to see man as what me must be, according to the poem's logic, one needs to expand beyond a human viewpoint, and the true nature of man is seen through the eyes of God.

So the poem expands a degree in scale -- suddenly it is no longer just a man describing a kingfisher, but God describing man. We get the God's eye view, as it were, and the fire that man sees in the kingfisher, its innate being shining through, becomes the Christ who "plays in ten thousand places" through man's "feature and faces." He is lovely in limbs not his, playing through our veins like fire or the echo of a stone falling down a well.

This shift in scale also changes the terms of what is seen -- the man sees beauty, and God sees Justice; beauty and justice are linked, with justice being the next scale up from beauty. Platonic, no?

To finish, I'd suggest that the poem is a unified meditation on one event: the exposure of Being to a viewer, be it in kingfishers or in man. Perhaps we could extrapolate that Hopkins believed that the visions of infinity we get in nature are simply small forms, signs of faith and the infinitely infused presence of God, of the greater possibility within us. That our love for the world is a micro-cosm of God's love for us. Or perhaps the poem is completely experiential -- instead of being a mental abstraction, Hopkins had some mystical experience of the objective vision of God touching mankind, seeing the justice and the Christ transforming our blood. I suppose we cannot know, but it must be raised as a central question of an immensely beautiful and well-crafted poem.