Hopkins Lectures 2004

'As kingfishers catch fire' - a Theological Reading

With many critics, Sakiko Takagi agrees that Hopkins had a concrete image for everything, not only in the sense that he sang of kingfishers, dragonflies, and stones in the poem 'As kingfishers catch fire', but also that he constructed his philosophical and theological thinking through concrete images.

Sakiko Takagi Japan

With many critics, I agree that Hopkins had a concrete image for everything, not only in the sense that he sang of kingfishers, dragonflies, and stones in the poem 'As kingfishers catch fire', but also that he constructed his philosophical and theological thinking through concrete images. In this paper, I approach Hopkins's thought in this poem through his visual construction.

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;

The first line almost shocks us is a vivid image of fire, seemingly emanating from kingfishers and dragonflies. The following lines depict stones rolling down wells, and strings plucked, and bells' bows swinging and ringing their peals, all of which mimic specific sounds as well as images.

We enjoy the successive images of this brilliant world until we come to the fourth line, 'Each mortal thing does one thing and the same', where we are asked to quit seeking the variety and turn to unity: one and the same thing:

' Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me : for that I came.'

The nature of the objective realities remembered by Hopkins converges in a verb 'Selves' in the seventh line: 'goes itself', speaks ' myself ' 'Crying What I do is me: for that I came .' Actually, we are torn between the opposites of individualization and unification.

If Hopkins had not used 'Selves', an analysis of the poem would be easier, but as it is the key word, it deserves careful attention. In his note on The Spiritual Exercises, Hopkins classifies six items into two groups, respectively,

natures = essences = inscapes
selves = supposits = hypostases

What is inscape?

But how could natures be equalled to inscapes, or what Hopkins meant by inscapes? Roughly speaking, Hopkins gave us three phases of inscapes. The first phase appeared very early in 1868 in his paper on Parmenides. He thought of inscapes as our way of acknowledging things. Natures or inscapes can be considered knowledge and knowing at the same time.

Parmenides claims that the mind's grasp ??e??, the foredrawing act that this is blood or that blood is red is to be looked for in Being, the foredrawn, alone, not in the thing we named blood (1)

Humanly speaking, we affirm a thing at the moment we recognize the thing as it is. Hopkins says this affirmative 'yes' is inscape.

The truth in thought is Being, stress, and each word is one way of acknowledging Being. Each sentence by its copula is (or its equivalent) becomes the utterance and assertion of it (2).

Given how fast inscape grabs a reality, nothing is so closer to the truth than a simple yes and is.

No matter how differently trout are stippled with rose-moles, we assert that a trout is a trout at the very moment we catch the sight of it. Inscape does not happen after we know something; it is when recognizing, knowing, judging, or saying 'yes' that we acknowledge inscape.

Inscape, a definition rather than an act of recognition

He continues by stating that non-rational entities such as two eggs do not have selves, since they are 'precisely alike/will behave precisely alike' (3). While in the case of rational entities they possess both natures and selves; non-rational entities on the other hand possess only natures or essences or inscapes. Thus non-rational entities are here denied individuality but given recognition as a group as things or species. Secondly, they neither have selves, nor can they have 'self'.

The second phase proposed as a formula occurred thirteen years later in 1881, when inscapes are described as a way of definition rather than an act of recognition. But these formulas are the result of knowing. Each rational entity is a combination of natures and selves; each non-rational entity has only nature. Returning to the seventh line, we can understand that Hopkins does not insist on his theory, but uses non-rational entities as guides or instances in the sestet where he places special emphasis on true realization of rational existences.

The third phase the most popular one is often mentioned in his diary around 1868. Here Hopkins mostly uses inscape as a single form for both a thing and things.

Two plants especially with strongly inscaped leaves cover the mountain pastures. (6)

Spanish chestnuts: their inscape here bold, jutty, somewhat oak-like, attractive, the branching visible and the leaved peaks spotted so as to make crests of eyes. (7)

Hopkins leaves us no definition for inscape. We can surmise however, that he employs this word whenever he is touched by beautiful things, or sees a charming shape and sound of a thing or things. Yet it is not described as anything that has a shape. In my opinion, it could be patterns or designs that suggest repetition in creation. The clearest definition we are given concerns music, painting, and poetry.

Music and Inscape

But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling 'inscape' is what I above all aim at in poetry. (8)

In short, Hopkins probably did not have any single object or individual entity in mind when he used it.

The reason why he picked several non-rational entities as examples in the octave of the poem would be that he wanted to use them as guides to reinforce the purpose of every created thing, not excluding human beings..

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ. 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.

In the sestet we learn that after pointing to 'Each mortal thing' Hopkins focuses on a 'just' man. Obviously he is not talking about every single man, but about a man determined to be just by God and Christ, or to be more precise, a man everyone should try to be. In the case of rational entities, a man could deal out what is inside him, but not as he might arbitrarily like to do, but as Christ himself acts in God's eye.

Then how a just man can answer for his behaviour? The 4 th and 5 th lines in the sestet say Christ 'plays ' in innumerable places through lovely limbs and eyes and faces to God. This might serve as a duplicate image of man and Christ. Of course, I do not deny that this idea could be exclusively Hopkinsian, still I feel I would like to add that this duplication could easily be stated by and appreciated, even among Buddhists. What makes it Hopkinsian then? I suggest that this image has been uniquely based on the way he thought about the question of truth as expressed in his paper on Parmenides.

He Parmenides compares it (Being) like Xenophanes to a ball rounded true and may very well mean this as an analogy merely, especially as the comparison is to the outline and surface rather than to the inner flushness, the temper and equality of weight. (JP p.128 parentheses mine)

Hopkins seems to have come to realize that a round image comes closest to express truth. He mentions the burl as equivalent to truth itself, and he does it here (JP p.130) for the first time. The burls are small bumps that grow to the trunk; they are round-shaped truth. As they are attached to the trunk or the truth itself, they are part of it. Burls will never change the nature of truth itself.

In The Sermons and Devotional Writings , Hopkins employs the idea of burl in two connotations. One is developed in relation to being in forma Dei in Philippians 2:7-8 . Whether Christ the burl contains God as a servant or God the burl contains Christ as a servant. it points to the paradoxical form of God's love.

The other burl could be a variation, associated with a pomegranate. There are three instances where Hopkins uses pomegranate, but, as it is a metaphor of the state of both the possible and the actual world, it is very difficult for me to catch his idea:

'Magnam capacitatem et ambitum mundi' - This suggests that 'pomegranate', that pomum possibilium . The Trinity saw it whole and in every 'cleave', the actual and the possible. We may consider that we are looking at it in all the actual cleaves, one after another. This sphere is set off against the sphere of the divine being, a steady 'seat or throne' of majesty. Yet that too has its cleave to us, the entrance of Christ on the world. There is not only the pomegranate of the whole world but of each species in it, each race, each individual, and so on. Of human nature the whole pomegranate fell in Adam. (Aug. 26 '85) ( SD p.171)

As I read it the divine pomegranate is singular, while our earthly pomegranate contains species pomegranates, which contain race pomegranates, which contain individual pomegranates, and so on, like nested boxes. Both the Godhead and humans communicate through 'cleaves 'of each other.

As besides the actual world there is an infinity of possible worlds, differing in all degrees of difference from what now is down to the having noting in common with it but virgin matter, each of which possible worlds and this the actual one are like so many 'cleaves' or exposed faces of some pomegranate (or other fruit) cut in all directions across.
(SD p.151)

Hopkins says that there are innumerable possible choices for us in this actual world. The possibility here has little to do with expressions such as "this may be possible", or, "I may do this in the afternoon". Hopkins means that with possibility there is a shift into the possible world, a crucial step toward God. He claims "This shift is grace". Approved and taken out into the possible world, a just man is given grace from God through Christ. Once again I quote the last part of this chapter.

.. so far as it is looked at in esse quieto it is Christ in his member on the one side, his member in Christ on the other. It is as if a man said :That is Christ playing at me and me playing at Christ, only that it is no play but truth; That is Christ being me and me being Christ. ( SD p. 154 )

You may hear in this passage an echo of the last part of the poem. I quote this part to give evidence to the cogent connection between the poem and theory; however, which is important is to present Hopkins's visual, concrete and imaginative world, which always accompanied his theory. I have introduced today what might have been neglected as idiosyncratic of Hopkins' thought, but when we think of his background as an Oxford education and his Anglican family, it would not be right to start thinking of him exclusively as a fully formed Jesuit priest with no previous history or influences. He had started early in his life to cultivate the wide and wild, original but attractive world of images.

Yet in building his world of imagination, even a kingfisher, a dragonfly, a stone, a string, a hung bell's bow, each and every man could not escape from Hopkins's observation. He kept integrating each into his theory and poetry.


1. The Journals and Papers of Gerald Manley Hopkins (p. 129)

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Analysis of 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire ...'