Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

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 out 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 What I do is me: for that I came.

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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” depicts the virtue of graciousness as one of the forms of beauty in the world. Just “As kingfishers catch fire” and “dragonflies draw flame,” thus leaving a streak of color and light in their trail as they flash through the air, all gracious actions also create an aftereffect and leave an imprint. The golden flash of the kingfisher as the bird moves through the sky charges the atmosphere with a glow and brilliance that dazzle. The sparks of the dragonflies illuminate the darkness of the night with fire and radiance that suggest a trail of glory.

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Gracious gestures, courteous actions, and beautiful movements also leave behind powerful impressions that linger and abide, effects that energize and transform an atmosphere. Hopkins compares the afterglow of the flight of the kingfisher and the flash in the wake of the movement of fireflies to the echo of moving water:

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 its broad name.

Stones that create waves of concentric circles in wells and resonate with sound, and bells that peal in their succession of notes provide another image of graciousness—beautiful sounds, sweet music, and lyrical songs that continue to ring and reverberate. Likewise, human beings also leave a trail of glory, an echo of music, and an afterglow of joy as they act, move, and speak with graciousness.

For Hopkins, each person is created to be a source of grace to others by the way he moves, speaks, and acts toward others—by the way he reflects Christ’s actions, by the way he embodies Christ’s words, and by the way he transfigures the world by his coming and going:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself.

The fire of love, the music of joy, the glow of happiness, and the overflow of goodness that reside in Christ-like hearts (“that being indoors each one dwells”) must express themselves and leave trails or resonate sounds in visible or audible ways. One who “deals out that being indoors” and “selves—Goes itself” is doing what God created it to do—be a source of grace to others, a channel of charity, a spark of life, and a voice of truth and happiness. When man honors the moral law and obeys the Commandments, he lives a life of justice:

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces.

Thus all good deeds and just actions emit grace—God’s presence in the world bringing light into the darkness, God’s voice bringing music to the ears, and God’s word transfiguring the world. Grace charges an atmosphere and renews the face of the earth. When each person—whatever his station or vocation in life—“Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is,” a source of grace to others, then the world revels with joy, “For Christ plays in ten thousand places” through His creatures imitating Him as they fill each other’s lives with beauty and music, mirth and warmth, and love and goodness. In this hidden, mysterious way God is everywhere:

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the father through the features of men’s faces.

Like youth, lithe and lovely in limbs, grace moves in effortless, natural motions and reflects the playfulness of God, His surprising appearances in a myriad of forms.

Grace smiles, plays, sings, dances, and revels; it does not move in ponderous, awkward motions. It jumps or tumbles rather than proceeding in methodical, prescribed steps. It flashes and sparkles with the splendor of color, relieving the monotony of regimentation and dullness. Grace is youthful, energetic, and ebullient, lifting the spirits and rejoicing the heart. For example, Mother Teresa writes of the refreshing power of a smile as a heartwarming greeting to others, a simple expression of grace: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” Courteous words, kind compliments, and delightful conversation also transform the quality of daily life from humdrum to joyous and fill the air with sounds of happiness. The simple virtue of hospitality that welcomes guests into homes and celebrates the simple pleasures of good company and hearty friendship refreshes the weary soul and renews the inner life.

Grace is a divine energy, God’s life-giving spirit that brings joy out of sorrow and brightness out of gloom, for Hopkins refers to the ringing, swinging, flinging, and playing manifestations of grace. Grace gives savor and relish to human existence, a salt and spice that dispel the bland tastelessness of monotonous routine. Mysterious as God’s grace is, it expresses itself throughout all of creation in the movements, sounds, colors, words, gestures, and actions of all things that come and go—the invisible things of God being known by the visible things, in St. Paul’s famous words.

In this grace-filled world bursting, overflowing, and sparkling with divine light and sound, humans are the primary sources of this goodness and beauty. They must “deal out that being indoors each one dwells,” that is, release the enormous potential of love locked in the human heart so that its dynamic power can exalt the world. What is the catalyst for this explosion? Hopkins’ poem begins with the little things and mounts to the greater things. Progressing from the motion of kingfishers and dragonflies to the rush of water to the resonance of music to the beating of the heart “crying What I do is me: for that I came,” Hopkins captures the essence of grace: it abounds in the world in inexhaustible supply, ever giving and replenishing itself. Awaiting to erupt in each person’s soul so that it may “selve” or unleash itself in an outpouring, grace is God’s constant activity in the world, Christ’s playing “in ten thousand places” in small ways and big ways—from beautiful smiles and joyous affability to gracious civility and gifts of love.

Every time someone receives a personal letter, the surprise of a gift, or a friendly visit, a kingfisher catches fire. Each time a person radiates a smile, initiates friendship, extends hospitality, or sends invitations for festive occasions, dragonflies draw flame. Whenever gentle words, sweet sounds of music, or inspired eloquence move the heart, a tolling bell echoes and awakens the spirit. When one beholds the beauty of art in dance, painting, poem, or architecture, splendor illumines daily life. When great musicians perform with virtuosity, or gifted athletes excel with their agility, speed, or power, wonder infuses the world. When good people perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, grace abounds as their inmost being “selves—goes itself” in its generous charity. These are some of the ordinary comings and “goings” that are graces, leaving behind their powerful aftereffects in their display of divine energy that charges the world.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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