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: 5
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; 10
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.
Perhaps the best way to get at the meaning and idea of this week’s poem is to come at it from the end and then work toward the beginning. This particular poem, “When kingfishers catch fire,” contains two important themes found throughout Hopkins’ poems. First is the idea that Christ is found throughout the world within his bride, his people. This is encapsulated nicely in the solitary line “for Christ plays in ten thousand places,” and then further explained in the last lines of the poem:
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces
How does Christ “show up” in this world? Again, in his people. Through their arms and legs, through the look in their eyes, through the various features of their unique faces. As Catherine of Siena once wrote to a priest, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. No hands but yours. No feet yours. Yours are the eyes through which His compassion must look out into the world. Yours are the feet with which he must go about doing. Yours are the hands through which he must bless the world now.” As he was a priest and obviously a thoughtful, devout man, Hopkins grasped this as well. He would say that a Christian acting in this way would be “selving,” that is, being what he or she is meant to be as one of those made just by the work of Christ. Thus, “the just man justices;/Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces.” This idea of “selving” is the second major theme of Hopkins’s work, which this poem demonstrates.
Moving backward through this poem, we see that “selving” is what each part of God’s creation does naturally. [Click To Tweet] The kingfisher, a stunning blue bird with an almost shocking orange breast, looks to catch fire in the sun. Dragonflies’ bodies seem aflame as well as their iridescent bodies reflect the sun as they hover and dart about the sky. The sound of a stone falling down past the rim of a “roundy well” echoes and then splashes below in a distinct way. Each contact of a bell’s clapper with its edge or lip rings out its unique sound, like a “tongue” (another name for the clapper) to “fling out broad its name.” Of course, Hopkins’s syntax and word choice to portray or describe this “selving” of the elements of the world is much more eloquent and startling and memorable than my descriptions here. But you get the idea: everything in creation does that for which it was made, is itself and lets loose or performs or manifests its inner identity or being in doing what it does. Or, as Hopkins puts it, “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/Deals out that being indoors each one dwells.” To give another example beyond the poem, “A Honda Hondas,” as my friend Stan Ward says; a Honda (car) is its truest self when it functions as Hondas are made to function (i.e., reliably, steadily, durably). This brings glory to its creator, just as the kingfisher, the dragonfly, the stone, and the bell bring glory to their creators when they “selve,” when they do their identity.
And, such is the case with us. Though our “selving” is more complex than that of the bird and the stone–and even the Honda automobile, we most glorify God and Christ our groom when we live and breathe and have our being as he has created us to do… as he is re-creating us to do in our redemption. [Click to Tweet].
This is a good place to stop and ask: How are you selving? What is coming out into the world as you manifest or put forth what you really are? As we are complicated creatures, this question will have a complex answer. Perhaps we should start with How does a human selve? How do we selve in our own unique way, as God made us to individually and corporately to selve?
If you are enjoying Kent Travis’ teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What? It’s packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn’t believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It’s awesome!
Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.