Hopkins Lectures 2012


























































































































The Just Man Justices? An Eckhartian Echo in 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire.'

Eamon Kiernan University of Magdeburg Germany

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is widely regarded as one of Hopkins' finest  achievements. The poet, however, was unusually reticent with it. Drawing on Meister Eckhart, this paper offers an interpretation of the poem centered on the idea of the Just Man. In making present the pattern of individuality in the way it does, the poem fails to 'justice' in its own terms, providing a possible explanation for Hopkins' reticence.

In 1877, when As Kingfisher's Catch Fire (1) was written, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a student of theology at Saint Beuno's in North Wales. The poem reflects two great blessings in his life at that time, the love of nature, which led him to take long walks in the countryside and jot down in a notebook what he saw, and the affinity with Duns Scotus. From the subtle doctor, Hopkins received confirmation of a fundamental intuitive insight that beauty also pertains to individual concrete things and that through these God can be revealed.
Unusually, As Kingfishers Catch Fire lacks both a title and a final draft, and was not sent to Robert Bridges (White( 1), p. 275).This suggests that the poet felt the poem to be unfinished, perhaps even unfinishable. Such reticence cannot be attributed to artistic failure. Hopkins did not discard this sonnet, and it is widely seen as one of the poet's most fully-achieved creations. Poetic excellence aside, the poem would not have escaped a moral judgement on Hopkins' part. As a sincere candidate for the priesthood he would have submitted his undertakings, and all his motivations and preferences, to the scrutiny of conscience. In fact, as will be shown, the poem provides sufficient grounds for moral disquiet.

In the following, a short consideration of the concepts Hacceitas, Pitch, Inscape and Instress throws light on Hopkins' sacramental aspiration as a poet. Then, a reading of the Octave and the Sestet leads to a discussion of the figure of the Just Man, which draws on the Medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, and on the reception of German Idealism in Nineteenth Century Oxford, through which Eckhart's influence might have penetrated to Hopkins. This Eckhartian echo yields an interesting perspective on Gerard Hopkins as a poet of sacramental poems and as a soon-to-be Catholic priest. A fundamental tension with Catholic doctrine is revealed which may explain Hopkins' reticence regarding the present poem.

Hacceitas, Pitch, Inscape, Instress
We have Hopkins testimony that after discovering Duns Scotus in Stoneyhurst in 1872 he could not take in natural beauty without thinking of Scotus. (2) However, it is by no means clear that Hopkins had a good understanding of Scotus (3) Nor can Scotist terminology be related unequivocally to Hopkins' self-created concepts for capturing the nature of individual beauty. Since the 1940s(4) critical discussion has given prominence to the Scotist term hacceitas (thisness), and it is sufficient to follow this line here. (5) Hacceitas, which refers to the individualised form of beings, has a number of possible correspondences in Hopkins' vocabulary,  notably 'inscape' 'instress' and 'pitch'. Hopkins' notebooks and letters betray different usages of these terms at different times. Although hacceitas has more often been related to 'inscape', it may correspond better to 'pitch' (6), which refers to the oneness of individualised form as captured at a given moment by the attention. 'Inscape' seems to refer more to the pattern of possible pitches which arises at the moment of seeing. 'Instress' refers to the Divine power that holds the pattern of thisness in presence. Pitch and Inscape, we may conclude, are objects of the organs of perception and the intellect, but Instress reveals itself only to a higher order faculty. Hopkins often calls it the 'heart.' (7) The 'heart', as Thomas Merton (8) has pointed out, is a traditional technical term, not only in Catholic spirituality, for a non-intellectual knowledge faculty by which the person can be oriented towards the Divine (9) For Hopkins, it seems, the instress of the Divine is revealed through the work of the heart in recollecting individualised form, that is, through the loving consideration of inscape and pitch. This recollection process can bear lasting fruit as a work of art. If it does, that work has itself the potential to reveal the Divine. Evidently, Hopkins' poetic aspiration is sacramental. The concept of a sacrament has received very careful definitions in Catholic theology. We will confine ourselves here to the simple meaning of making Christ present, leaving the many theological problems to those better qualified for the task. Perhaps the sacramental aspiration is not fulfilled – a question we will return to.

The Octave
The Octave brings together living creatures (kingfishers, dragonflies, l. 1), mineral entities (stones, l. 3) man-made structures (wells, string, bell, l. 2-3), categories of mental ordering (e.g. name, mortality, myself, l. 4-7) together with orthographic and prosodic effects. Initially, two sense-impressions and two kinds of being are patterned, one visual and natural (the sight of kingfishers and dragonflies in the sun, l. 1) the other aural and man made, (the sounds of stones falling in wells, strings, and bells l. 2-4). These are separate meaning groups, but the internal rhymes (kingfishers, ring, string, l. 1-3, hung, swung, tongue. l. 3-4) subvert this separation.  The heightened radiance of the phenomena when they are seen as individualised emerges from a greater pattern, which is as much created as revealed by the working poet and by the poem when voiced aloud. In the second quatrain, the individualising behaviours of beings are shown to be ultimately one behaviour (“...does one thing and the same”, l. 5), that of articulating a secret self inside them (“deals out that being indoors each one dwells”, l. 6). Through this expressive activity, the being becomes itself (“selves”, l. 7). This selving is both incessant activity (“goes its self”, l. 7) and fulfillment  (“for that I came” l. 8). Because all beings can be seen as one through their common selving, it follows that the whole of the pattern, namely all of creation, is individualised in one selving self, the self of the power of selving, which the poem later identifies as Christ.

The beings mentioned in the Octave are described as mortal (l. 5), an attribute which deserves closer attention. The mortality shared by the living, such as a kingfisher, and the non-living, such as a bell, is different. What they have in common is not an end moment of death, but an innate fragility of selving, a transience, a possibility of failure. While the kingfishers and dragonflies will die, perhaps even become extinct, the sound of a bell will merely fade without losing the ability to sound out again. However, the bell needs to be struck by an appropriate outside force, which may be lacking. Above all, mortality, in this sense of fragility, pertains to the act of observation of the poet. The kingfishers catch fire only when the light plays on their plumage in the right way, and when the poet is there at the right moment with the ability to see it. The whole of the pattern, the self of the power of selving, is a self in motion, a self of waxing and waning, a self selved in the struggle to stand as itself, a self won only momentarily in the struggle with non-existence. The poet’s observation, despite its almost accidental quality, is necessary to the selving, a point we will return to.

The Sestet
“I say more” (l.9) begins the Sestet. This prominent, rather loud ‘I’ functions as a pivot between the natural world of the Octave and the world of divine action which now unfolds. The ‘I’ that announces itself here can only be the same ‘I’ that previously perceived and named the individual forms of nature in the Octave. It will also be the ‘I’ of the reader when he or she performs the poem, and thus makes Christ present - if the sacramental aspiration behind the poem is actually fulfilled.

An ‘I’ that sees and names natural beings is of great resonance in a Christian poem. Genesis 2:19 (10) tells us that the first man, Adam, had the task and privilege of giving every living creature its name. We can say that Adam, like Hopkins, used the gift of language to capture for God the individuality and beauty of the creatures as they appeared to him. Adam, like Hopkins, was a poet. His poetic work was a moment in the recognition of the creatures by God, and thus of their creation, and was at the same time a moment of God's recognition of Himself in the creatures and in Adam. Of course, this Adamic ‘I’ is that of Adam before the Fall. Despite the mortality made clear in the Octave, Hopkins does not allude to the separation of Man from God through Sin.

What then is the 'more' that this Adamic 'I' says to us? That the “just man justices (l.9).” Before this figure can yield its meaning, we must look at the other attributes the poem gives to the Just Man, namely ‘keeping’ and ‘acting.’ Unlike the non-human beings of the Octave, the Just Man is not mortal in the sense of the poem, because his power of self is not fragile or transient (“keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces”  l.10). Again unlike non-human beings, the individuality of the Just Man is not made radiant through a pattern of difference. The kingfishers and dragonflies illuminate each other in an as-comparison, but the Just Man is like no-one and nothing. He is his own verbal force. A new note is present, one of unpatterned solitude. He does not need another to selve himself. He does not “fling out broad his name.”

The critical exegesis of the Just Man who 'justices' is often less than enlightening. Derrida (11) has argued that when the word ‘justice,’ by Hopkins' genius, becomes an intransitive verb, it designates a “way of being”, by which “without instrumentalizing it…” one  “... accomplishes the just in a spontaneous manner … as something ... that emanates from its own source, sponta sua.(12) Unfortunately, the 'justicing' Derrida praises so much is that of the speech act, of and for itself. This entails a view of poetic language as recursive on itself, which would not be true to Hopkins' intention.

Other critics prefer to draw on traditional Catholic teaching. For Norman H. MacKenzie, (13) 'justicing' refers to the state of grace of a Christian after the forgiveness of sins, by which all everyday acts become grace-filled.(14)  Duc Dau, (15)drawing on Aristotle's account of the acquisition of virtues, reads 'justicing' together with the ideas of 'act' and 'play' in lines 11-12: “Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is- /Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places”. Here, 'justicing' is seen as repeated role playing, through which a man becomes just by imitating the just acts of others and by eventually imitating Christ. 'Justicing', in such a view, is a drama of Christ-like acts played out before God. MacKenzie and Dau exemplify the views of many scholars, and they accord well with the Catholic Christian ethos of the poem. However, they leave much unsaid. If, as the Bible tells us, the Just Man falls seven times a day (Proverbs 24:16), how can he avoid mortality in his selving? How can he keep grace? If the Just Man does not express himself in a pattern of difference, how can he play a role in the games of justice familiar to us? How can he be imitated, and Christ with him?
With a poet as given to word play as Hopkins, it seems right to bring in another possible meaning of 'just', namely 'only'. The Just Man can be read as 'a mere man' or 'only a man.' Then, his 'justicing' would have to do with reduction, with a self stripped bare of inessential accretions. The Just Man would not express himself in a radiant pattern, because he would not have an intentional self to express. If, as I believe, Hopkins used 'justicing' in this reduced meaning to express the selving of the human being in the way 'catching fire' does for kingfishers, a most fruitful line of interpretation is opened up. It brings into play a kenotic view of Christ and the fulfilled human being, which, though prominent in The Wreck of the Deutschland, seems at first to be absent from the celebratory nature sonnets of the same period. Read this way, the poem draws close to the idea of the Just Man as taught by Meister Eckhart.

Meister Eckhart (ca 1260-1327) will seem at first sight to be of little relevance to any poem by Hopkins. In contrast to our poet, Eckhart chose a via negativa that looks away from the sensible particularity of created beings. There is no evidence that Hopkins ever read him. However, German Romanticism and German Idealism, both of which drew much from Eckhart, belonged to the intellectual climate at Oxford when Hopkins was an undergraduate there. (16) The major influences on Hopkins' studies, Jowett, Greene and Pater, were admirers of Hegel, who was himself a declared admirer of Eckhart. Walter Pater referred to Eckhart by name, though critically, in Plato and the Doctrine of Rest, a text with a  demonstrable resemblance to Hopkins' own Notes on Parmenides from 1868. (17)It is highly probable that Hopkins knew something of Eckhart's thought. Such structural affinities, or echoes, are worth examining.

For Meister Eckhar (18) the relationship between the Just Man and Justice is paradigmatic of the relationship between the human being and God. In summary and with apologies for the clumsy simplifications   two kinds of justice can be identified: that which gives each its due, and that which receives everything without distinctions of taste or value. The man who is just is emptied of self, he has abandoned his own will completely. Because Justice exists as a perfect idea prior to any individual existence, Justice is also God. Because the being of man and of God are one and the same, the object of the acting of the Just Man is not the just act or its result, but God seen as Justice. Through the Just Man, God works Himself as Justice. In Eckhart's terminology, Justice gives birth to the Just Man which is the same as saying that God is always giving birth to Christ in a Just Man, who thus honours the Father in all he does.

This yields a satisfying reading of Hopkins' Just Man who 'justices'. Being just in the sense of giving each thing its due enables the purity of perception and cognition by which the selving of natural things can be recognised. It is necessary to the process of recollection by which, as mentioned above, the instress of the Divine can be revealed. What is due to things is non-interference, the absence of a desire to possess them, or for them to be in any way other than they are. Through this detached, non violent habitus, God can be known through the selving of created beings.

Because of the univocal correlation between the being of God and His creatures and between Justice and the Just Man, the selving of the Just Man through 'justicing' is not merely human. Nor is it mortal. Therefore he 'keeps grace'. When the Just Man “acts...Christ” (l. 11-12) , it is not a role play or the imitation of some exemplary act, but the coming together of being and doing in a pure act with no need of an external pattern, and transparent to its divine source. The imitation of Christ is ascetic and inward. It consists of the repeated refusal of self-love in everyday life.

Eckhart's speculative labours were directed towards oneness, non-duality and the value of emptiness, which seem to bear little relation to the lines of the poem which now follow. Hopkins turns to physical beauty (“lovely in limbs” l. 13), and to the separation of the eye of God (singular) from the eyes (plural) of others (“lovely in eyes not his” l. 13). Yet, the poem then moves to assert the oneness of Christ in the plurality:  “Christ plays.../To the Father through the features of mens' faces.” (l. 13-14). There the poem rests. The celebration of duality and plurality bears witness to the oneness of God and His creation. God is praised without any loss of self for the individual beings.

This great whole of patterned individualities, by which the one and the many illuminate each other, depends on the reciprocity between God and man in Christ. The nature of this reciprocity is not made explicit in the poem. However, a comparison with related texts shows that it is based on self-consciousness. In his Notes on Personality Grace and Free Will (1881), Hopkins writes of the assistance given by God's Grace using many of the same words as in the Sestet of this Sonnet: “It is as if a man said that is Christ playing at me and me playing at Christ: only that is no play but truth, that is Christ being me and me being Christ.” (19) Evidently, the conviction that the thought of Christ is at one and the same time the thought of oneself is a constant throughout Hopkins work. Reflexive self-consciousness, as it is sometimes termed, is a thought figure prominent in the German Idealists Fichte and Hegel. As a development of a Platonic figure, it is also prominent in Eckhart, from whom Hegel may have derived it. (20)

The idea of a self-consciousness shared by oneself and God can lead quite easily to the assumption of the pantheistic unity of God and creation, and to the postulate of an absolute ‘I’ which is at once man's and God's.  Many theses of Meister Eckhart read this way, or seem to. Some of them were condemned by Papal Bull (In agro dominico, 1329). In this poem, we find Hopkins, too, on difficult doctrinal terrain. In stating Christ in the patterns of nature, language, the human world, and God, the pivotal ‘I’ of the Sestet places itself outside of Him. It does this because the power, granted by human language, to state Christ in what one sees and thinks, and to state oneself as Christ in seeing and thinking, is illusory. Stating Christ is not necessarily Christ, only about Christ. The sacramental intention, assuming it were ever possible, needs more than that to succeed. But in this poem, no more is offered. The poem and the poet do not “keep grace”. They fail to 'justice'. If my argument has proved convincing, what is lacking is a full and radical commitment to the self-emptying that makes of a sincerely religious man a Just Man.

In 1877, when As Kingfishers Catch Fire was written, Hopkins' ordination to the priesthood was drawing near. His enthusiasm for Duns Scotus, described as 'obstinate' by contemporaries,(21) had already cost him a good result in his theology exams(22) The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the need for its protection by infallible doctrine, had helped to motivate his conversion to Catholicism some years previously. Yet Hopkins was drawn to look elsewhere for Christ, in the experience of natural beauty. Truly, the just man justices. As Kingfisher's Catch Fire has an honoured place in the Hopkins canon, but not by the will of the poet. Perhaps, while working on the poem, Hopkins was aware of how easy it would be for him to depart from fidelity to Catholic doctrine. Perhaps that awareness was unwelcome. It is likely that a moral disquiet prevented him from finishing this fine poem in his usual manner.

Author's Note: I am grateful to William Adamson for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

1.      References to the poems are to Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose. Ed. W.H. Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953.

2.     White, Norman. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

3.   See  Ballinger, Philip A. The Poem As Sacrament: The Theological Aesthetic of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Louvain: Peeters, 2000, p. 104.

4.    Doubts about the accuracy of Hopkins' reading of Scotus surfaced early. They are well summarized by Ballinger (2000, p. 101ff.).

5.     The prominence of hacceitas emerged with W.A.M. Peters. See Ballinger ( 2000, p. 129, note 65).

6.    Arguments have also been advanced for a different Scotist term, species specialissima,  (Ballinger, 2000, p. 127ff.).

7.   Saville, Julia F. A Queer Chivalry. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000, p. 98.

8.    See, for example, the usage of 'heart' in  Hurrahing in Harvest (l.12-14).When beauty is perceived and recognised, the heart is able to move towards Christ.

9.    Merton, Thomas. “Transcendent Experience” in Thomas Merton on Zen, 121-128. London: Sheldon Press, 1976.

10.      The 'heart' – used rather loosely – was a common image for all kinds of religious experience in the Victorian era. See Blair, Kirstie. Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, 148ff. Blair seems to believe that in Hopkins' poetry specifically, the 'heart' has a reduced meaning, standing for “the fallible self, which must be chided and put down by God” (p. 239),  but she does not deal convincingly with the counter-examples she notes.

11.    Biblical references are to The Jerusalem Bible Popular Edition. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1974.

12.    Derrida, Jacques. “'Justices'.” Critical Enquiry 31 (2005): 689-721.

13.  Derrida (2005, p. 692).

14.   MacKenzie, Norman H. A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

15.     MacKenzie (1981, p. 150).

16.    Dao, Duc D. “'Beautiful Action': Hopkins and the Perfect Body.” The Hopkins Quarterly 35 (2008): 3-18.

17. My understanding of Hopkins at Oxford follows White (1991), Saville (2000)  and also  Brown, Daniel. Hopkins' Idealism: Philosophy, Physics, Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

18.   Saville (2000, p. 93).

19.   The analysis of the Just Man is held to be the key to Meister Eckhart's philosophy and theology. This account follows the Vernacular sermon Iusti vivent in aeternum. In  Meister Eckehart: Deutsche Predigten und Traktate. Herausgegegen und übersetzt von Josef Quint. Ed. Josef Quint, 182-187. München: Carl Hanser Verlag., 1963.
I am also indebted to the following:
Langer, Otto. “Meister Eckhart. Die Einheit von Theologie, Philosophie und Spiritualität”. In Theologen des Mittelalters. Ed. Ulrich Köpf, 149-167. Darmstadt. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2002.
Kirchner, Reinhard OSB. “Meister Eckharts Predigt Iusti vivent in aeternum.” Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur (1978): 229-262.
Von Bracken, Ernst. Meister Eckhart und Fichte. Würzburg: Konrad Tiltsch Verlag, 1943.

20.    Cited in Ballinger (2000, p. 220).

21.   For reflexive self-consciousness in Hegel, see Chapter 2 of Rockmore, Tom. Cognition: An Introduction to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Berkeley. University of California Press, 1997.
Regarding self-consciousness and the influence of Eckhart on Hegel see Halfwasser, Jens. Hegel und der spätantike Neuplatonismus. Hamburg. Meiner, 2005.

22.   Cited in White (1991,  p. 284).

23. See Ballinger (2000, p.106 note 9).

Born Sligo 1961. Resident in Germany since 1990. Dr.phil. Author of two critical Catholic novels: The Vineyard of the Nietzschean Priest (Whyte Tracks, 2010) and Without a Church (forthcoming).

Links to other 2012 Hopkins Festival Lectures

Cllinical Analysis and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Hopkins in Dublin || As Kingfishers Catch Fire | Hopkins and Hiberno English || Hopkisn Sermons ||