Hopkins Lectures 2009

















































The Kingfisher as a Symbol for Hopkins and Later Poets – Thomas Stearns Eliot, Charles Olson and Amy Clampitt

Lynn E. Cohen Hofstra University (Hopkins Festival 2009)

First, let me say, I am very much indebted to the Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Literary Festival’s Artistic Director, Desmond Egan, for his paper entitled 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire'. . . - analysis of Imagery and a Suggestion, which was given here in 2004 and is included in the Festival’s archives and in the 2009 compilation of essays, The Bronze Horseman: Revaluations, edited by Desmond Egan.

As I began to write this paper, several people asked me about the physical appearance of the kingfisher. An excellent description of this bird comes from American composer John Mackey, who described the kingfisher, when discussing his musical piece “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” as “birds with beautiful, brilliantly colored feathers that look in sunlight as if they are on fire.” He goes on to relate, “Kingfishers are extremely shy birds and are rarely seen, but when they are seen, they are undeniably beautiful.” The kingfisher, as a symbol, represents a multitude of opposites such as: “Transformation, calm, multiplicity, unity, felicity, disturbance, revelation...” according to Robert Newman in the Kingfisher 2006 Journal. Newman goes on to say, “To poets, the kingfisher magically embodies . . .a joining of opposites, a preservation of variety, an embrace of challenge and change.” This dichotomous concept of change is epitomized in the opening line of Charles Olson’s poem, “The Kingfishers”: “What does not change is the will to change.” This immediately brings Heraclitus’s idea to mind that one cannot step into the same river twice because the river changes, and, appropriately,

Olsen writes, “Into the same river no man steps twice.” The kingfisher image journeys through time and place in a recurrent and intertextual dialogic – from the perspective both of prolepsis and analepsis --among poetry by 19th century Victorian poet and Jesuit Priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins; modern poet and Anglicanism convert Thomas Stearns Eliot; post-war/post-modern poet Charles Olson and contemporary poet Amy Clampitt.

In fact, the recurrent yet paradoxical kingfisher’s symbolic meanings are juxtaposed in Canonical, modern, postmodern and contemporary poetry. Indeed, according to Newman, they go back to Greek mythology, where the kingfisher, again, paradoxically, is associated both with transformation—as in the story of Alcyon and Ceyx, who, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Zeus turns into a pair of birds—and with the idea of “halcyon days”—a period of calm seas and of general peace and serenity. In Hopkins and Eliot, the kingfisher’s dichotomous symbolic meanings are reconciled and united in Christ.

Literary critic Harold Bloom, in his 1973 work, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, is the great theorist of prolepsis. In it he states, one poet’s poems influence another’s . . . the poets influenced are . . . weaker (30). He notes that “Poetic Influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets, -- always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse willful revisionism without which modern poetry could not exist” (30). Thus he theorizes that poems based on previous poets’ works are weak, and poets need to overcome their own anxiety of influence by misreading those past poets – it is only after they do that can their works survive. However, since they have their own poetic voices, Eliot, Olson and Clampitt can influence the way(s) we read Hopkins’s poetry and vice-versa; both proleptically and analeptically.

Bloom’s theory of poetry runs in direct opposition to Thomas Stearns Eliot’s view as expressed in his 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” later published in The Sacred Wood in 1920 and explicated by contemporary poet, scholar, and critic, John Hollander, in a 1973 New York Times article in which he contrasts Eliot’s view to Bloom’s .

According to Hollander, “Eliot declared that a poet must ‘develop or procure’ a consciousness of the past, maintaining that if . . . moderns do indeed know more than dead writers, it is precisely they – the dead writers – who constitute what we know.” By contrast, as stated above, one of Bloom’s main ideas is that: “Poetic influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets – always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, the act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation” (Bloom 30).

Now let me begin with the first of the four poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. His use of symbols and prosody influenced twentieth-century poets and differentiates him from other Victorian poets, who used more traditional verse forms.

Hopkins’ untitled sonnet, “As kingfishers Catch Fire,” which according to Desmond Egan, Norman MacKenzie dates to 1877, uses the kingfisher image. Here is its text:

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:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself; myself it speak and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Chríst - for Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

The kingfisher symbol here represents, paradoxically, both mortality and immortality. The iridescent plumage of the spectacular kingfisher begins as a symbol of robust and fiery life: “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw flame.” It moves to the death tolling warning “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:” And union takes place in Christ:

Chríst - for Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces

Thomas Stearns Eliot, unlike Hopkins, struggled for faith in a secular age. He lived in London, as an expatriate, and was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888, the year before Hopkins died. He was Harvard educated and worked for Faber & Faber and as a banker. Like Hopkins, Eliot converted in midlife, but Eliot converted to Anglicanism. He espoused St. John of the Cross’ search for divine union with God -- believing it was necessary to go through a “dark night of the soul” as Saint John did. Eliot, a product of modern-day skepticism, rarely depicts images of Dantesque Divine Love in his works. His “Four Quartets” are the exception via his stillpoint motif (his glimpsing of “paradise”) and kingfisher symbol. In Eliot’s 1943 poem, “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets, the kingfisher appears in part IV as a symbol of reconciliation of opposites. There we see the contrasting symbols of light and darkness juxtaposed and the equation of light with Eliot’s still point is made, which according to Ethel Cornwell in her 1963 book, The Still Point, is “ . . . equivalent to union with God . . . self-surrender to and identification with the spiritual center of creation, the center of reality, where all opposites are reconciled . . . .”

The black cloud carried the sun away.

. . . After the Kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the stillpoint of the turning world.

It is important to note that in “Little Gidding,” the last of Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” the light is reflected all over the winter landscape. David Perkins, in “Rose-Garden to Midwinter Spring,” notes that the difference lies in the fact that the protagonist in “Burnt Norton” is simply gazing at “the heart of light,” while the protagonist in “Little Gidding” is actually part of it and has thus achieved Eliot’s goal – union with God. Similarly, as noted above, in Hopkins’s sonnet, union with God and a unification of symbolic opposites – life and death; mortality and immortality are achieved through Christ:

Chríst - for Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces

Moreover, also in “Burnt Norton,” one sees Eliotic proleptic influences on our reading of Hopkins and his fear of mortality as it is expressed in his poems “As kingfishers catch fire; dragon flies draw flames” and “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” where “each mortal thing does the same” “ and “It is Margaret you mourn for,” respectively. Clearly, in both Hopkins’s works, the way in which we look at man’s mortality can be proleptically explicated though Eliot’s recurrent time motif when he laments mortality in “Burnt Norton”: “time and the bell have buried the day.” This sort of revisionist reading of Hopkins through Eliot is most useful with “When kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” wherein

each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

But does Hopkins become the “weaker” poet as scholar Bloom seems to suggest? Of course not, Hopkins becomes a stronger poet, a modern poet, through Eliot.
Charles Olson (1910 -1970) is another poet whose use of the kingfisher image helps us understand Hopkins’s. First, contrary to Eliot’s theory of poetry and anticipating Bloom’s 1973 Anxiety of Influence theory, Olson wrote in a notebook entry in 1945, “The job of the poet . . . is to be destructive, to get rid of the dead past” (Maud 33).

Olson definitely feels an anxiety of influence here and tries to become the stronger poet and to leave Eliot the weaker one – consequently attempting to leave Hopkins even further behind in his “weak” Victorian past.

According to George Butterick, Olson’s poem “Kingfisher’s,” “Although rooted in its attack on The Waste Land, which it seeks to challenge and surpass . . . begins to put into practice the techniques and attitudes of postmodernism . . . The technique is still basically that of using Eliot’s juxtaposition.“

This is common to Hopkins’s, Eliot’s and Clampitt’s use of the kingfisher as a transformative symbol. Here according to Butterick, the kingfisher symbolizes the rise and fall of civilizations: “Given the fact of change--and there is enough evidence amassed throughout the poem of the movements of civilizations, their decline and rising like young kingfishers, or phoenixes, out of old ‘dripping, fetid’ nests--the poet can do nothing better than embrace change, though not passively, mindlessly. He commits his will to the search, to the act of history, the activism of ‘finding out for oneself,’ which is central to his philosophy.”

In “Kingfishers,” Olson refers to the birds as “she with the bad leg, and then the blue, / the one they had hoped was a male.“ Moreover, Olson asks in the poem “who cares /for their feathers / now?” According to Osbert, they were, at an earlier time, imported to the east for bridal headdresses (Butterick qtd. in Maud 28). So Olson’s descriptions contrast Hopkins’s, where the “kingfishers catch fire” and one sees beautiful, fiery and appreciated bird instead of deformed and sterile ones, whose feathers no longer serve any purpose.

More so, in Olson, even “The pool is slime” – a metaphorical nihilism in a faithless oeuvre contrasted with Hopkins’s and Eliot’s faith as allegorically exemplified in “Burnt Norton, where “The pool is filled with water out of sunlight.”

The final line of Olson’s “Kingfisher’s” “I hunt among stones” makes one look at Hopkins’s line from his kingfisher sonnet “As tumbled over rims in roundy wells / Stones ring” proleptically. For Hopkins, the stones making ringing sounds as they fall over the edges of rounded wells, lead to “hung bells” and man’s union with Christ; in Olson, there is only the quest. . . Moreover, according to Butterick, Olson’s stones are “. . . not to be taken as despair or a futile scrabbling among the rubble of an Eliotic wasteland. It is the highest-willed engagement, a commitment to change itself, if that is what is necessary.“

Also, in Olson’s poem, the kingfisher is a symbol of transformation: its lines “ . . .beaks and eyes/ of gold” are juxtaposed against “the young are born”. . . “this nest of excrement and decayed fish.” This echoes the dying birds of Irish poet Yeats, in “Sailing to Byzantium”:

birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

All of which point proletically back to Hopkins’s intimations of mortality.
Amy Clampitt (1920 -- 1994) also uses the kingfisher image, but she notes the influence of Hopkins. She was greatly influenced by Hopkins at Grinnell College in Iowa in the 1940s. But she did not publish her “Kingfisher” collection of poems until she was 63-years old and an established poet on the New York City Poetry scene. Robert Grimes of the New York Times wrote, that although Ms. Clampitt “succumbed to the spell of Gerard Manley Hopkins in college” she wrote little poetry at the time.
In Amy Clampitt’s poem “The Kingfisher,” she writes:

a kingfisher’s burnished plunge, the color/of felicity afire, came
glancing like an arrow/through landscapes of untended memory; ardor
illuminating with terrifying currency
now no mere glimpse, no porthole vista
but, down on down, the uninhabitable sorrow.

This reverberates with Hopkins, Eliot and Olson.

But Clampitt does more. Like Eliot and Olson she also influences the way in which Hopkins uses the kingfisher symbol. She also enlarges our understanding of Eliot and Olson. Her kingfisher has “burnished plumage / the color of felicity afire” and is analeptically reminiscent of Hopkins’ line “when kingfishers catch fire.” Both have the fiery bird image, representing irreconcilable opposites of the multiplicity and unity of God’s creation. And Clampitt’s “landscapes of unintended memory” journey back to the beginning of Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” where in the rose-garden scene, Eliot remembers an unconsummated childhood sexual experience that led him to a religious experience. In this scene, youthful sexual activity led Eliot only to doors and passages which remain unopened, yet the experience opened the way for Eliot to the mystical experience of Divine love:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

And it is in this reconciliation of opposites, the “memory and desire” that always remains that the kingfisher symbol brings to the end of “Burnt Norton,” arising as it does, out of the “footfalls” and bringing together “the fire and the rose” -- multiplicity and unity. Moreover, Clampitt’s symbolism is archetypal since she even uses the term “felicity” – one of the polarities of the transformational meanings of the kingfisher symbol.

Clampitt’s “landscapes of unintended memory/ . . . illuminating” also proleptically affect the ways how we look at “Little Gidding,” the last of Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” where “the light is reflected all over the winter landscape.” For where we have union with God for Eliot; for Clampitt, we have “the uninhabitable sorrow”; the nihilism common to a contemporary world.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP,
1973. Print.

Butterick, George. Charles (John) Olson. American Poets since WW II. Sixth Series. ed. Joseph Mark Conte. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 193. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Print.

Clampitt, Amy. The Kingfisher. New York: Knopf, 1983. Print.Cornwell, Ethel F. The Still Point. Camden: Rutger’s UP, 1962. Print.

Egan, Desmond. The Bronze Horseman. Newbridge County, Ireland: Goldsmith, 2009. Print.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot. London: Farber, 1969. Print.Geddes, Dan.

Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. The Satirist. Web. 24 June 2009.

Grimes, William. Amy Clampitt, 74, Late Bloomer Who Rose to Heights of Poetry.”

New York Times. New York Times, 12 Sept. 1994. Web. 3 May 2009. Hollander, John. “The Anxiety of Influence.“ New York Times. New York Times, 4 Mar. 1973. Web. 23 May 2009.

Mackey, John. “Kingfishers Catch Fire.” OSTI Music. OSTI Music, 30 Sept. 2007. Web. 28 June 2009.

Maud, Ralph. What does not change: The significance of Charles Olson’s “The Kingfisher’s” Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1998. Print.

Newman, Robert D. The Kingfisher 2006. The Kingfisher 2006, 2006. Web. 20 Apr. 2009.Olson, Charles.

Selected Poems ed. Robert Creeley. Berkeley: California UP, 1993. Print.

Perkins, David. “Rose-garden to Midwinter Spring.” T. S. Eliot Four Quartets. ed. Bernard Bergonzi. London: Macmillan, 1969. Print.

Yeats, Williams Butler. Collected Poems. ed. Richard Finneran. rev. 2nd ed. New York: Simon, nd. Print.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge my friend and colleague, Robert Windorf, for his help in proofreading this paper and for his scholarly suggestions.


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