By Cristina A. Montes
As Kingfishers Catch Fire
By 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.
The first temptation that readers face when encountering a poem is to search Google for ready-made analyses of it. I admit — I fall into that temptation too. In fact, there is nothing wrong with that. While some may feel that reading a ready-made analysis of a poem before reading the poem itself is like watching a movie after having heard spoilers, when one is beginning to appreciate poetry, reading what others have said about a poem helps. Poetry is, after all, first and foremost, a conversation between the poet and the readers to which each participant can contribute something interesting.
Dr. Holly Ordway’s take on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” is that its central point is, “[A]ll things naturally express their own identity — and the poem’s first lines have helped us feel, deep in our bones, that this identity is a joyous one.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Catholic priest, so it is not surprising that in the second stanza, of his poem, he spoke of Christ as that which makes the just man’s identity “joyous”. But one need not be religious to appreciate the point about all things naturally expressing their own joyous identities. One merely needs to observe nature the way Gerard Manley Hopkins observed nature in the first stanza of the poem.
As a birder, I find it striking that the first example Gerard Manley Hopkins gave of things naturally expressing their own joyous identities is that of a kingfisher catching fire – not in the literal sense of burning, but in the sense of its brightly-colored iridescent feathers glowing in the light of the sun.
I do not know if Gerard Manley Hopkins was a birder, but for him to have observed how kingfishers “catch fire” means he observed kingfishers closely. The common kingfisher is no longer a lifer for me; I’ve seen it more than once. But having read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, I suddenly want to observe a common kingfisher more closely – in the sun, preferably, with the kingfisher’s brightly-colored iridescent feathers in all their brilliant glory. The sight is probably so awesome – “joyous”, as Ordway says it. Confronted with such beauty, one does not analyze; one merely savors what one sees. Even if one has already seen it so many times before.
Birding and other nature hobbies provide many opportunities to see things naturally expressing their joyous identities – which is why these hobbies are a source of joy.
I will be glad to feature poetry contributions from readers in this column. You can send your poems about birds to firstname.lastname@example.org