as-kingfishers-catch-fire-lbc

Context

One of the most innovative English poets of the Victorian era, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who achieved posthumous fame once his contributions – which brought changes to the form of poetry – were recognized. In terms of form, Hopkins is best known for his use of sprung rhythm, a rhythmic structure used by Hopkins to avoid the constraints of the more traditional running rhythm which dominated English poetry up until the 19th century. Sprung rhythm was unique in that it mirrored natural speech patterns, and for that reason (along with his heavy use of alliteration and assonance) Hopkins’ poems are much easier to appreciate and understand when read aloud.

Hopkins is also known for the concepts of “inscape” and “instress” which feature prominently in his works and in his philosophical point of view. While not explicitly defined by Hopkins, inscape has been understood as the unique character of an object or being that is its individual identity. Hopkins believed that each object or being fulfills their identity through the process of selving (roughly to become one’s self). Instress is the ability to perceive the inscape of another object or being, recognizing the individual identity of something other than oneself. Being a man of religion, Hopkins connected these two ideas with divinity, and coming to know Christ. The idea being that someone able to instress the inscape of other objects or beings will acknowledge that the individual identity of anything is a divine creation. If this is difficult to understand, or appears overwhelming, stick with me. As we proceed I’ll dissect a few poems by Gerard Manley Butler that exhibit the forms and themes that I mentioned above.

Thoughts

This collection of poetry is very difficult to read, and my first impression was one of confusion and frustration. However, as I found, the secret to reading Gerard Manley Hopkins is to read it aloud. Silently, the words appear chaste and reverential, overly complex and confounding. Once you begin to read it out loud, you pick up on the playfulness of the verse and carefully chosen words. Instantly, the poetry becomes much harder to read in the sense that many of these poems border on being glorified tongue twisters. At the same time, the poetry is becomes easier to read, as you you pick up much more of the nuanced stylistic qualities that make Hopkins’ poetry enjoyable. Hearing these poems read aloud also helps you understand the unique techniques employed by Hopkins such as sprung rhythm. Sprung rhythm sounds much more like natural speech than standard metered poetry, and this break from traditional forms was influential in the rise of free verse poetry that we associate with more modern times.

At first I was skeptical of Hopkins upon reading the opening selection of this collection, “God’s Grandeur”. I prepared myself to be preached to by a stuffy religious man. Running the risk of redundancy, I stress that once I began to read it out loud, I was amazed how much more fun (yes, Fun) I was having with Hopkins’ poetry. The lyrical devices he employs in assonance and alliteration make the reading of the verses interesting and challenging in their own right. Wonderfully, like Japanese temples that have uneven steps which force visitors to take special care and attention, the tongue-twister nature of the poetry forced me to slow down and read the poems several times. This allowed me to slowly digest the more complex meanings of the words that I might have otherwise overlooked or cast off as zealotry.

Initially captivated by the audible qualities of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I was able to grasp some of the deeper messages over time. This is similar to what great music does for me, or even movies or tv. Read them aloud and you will see, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.


Curated Examples

It’s no mistake that this collection is entitled, “As Kingfishers catch fire”. It is a poem worthy of landing on the cover of this little book, and deserves your attention.

Try to read (aloud) the first 5 lines:

 

“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;”

If you read flawlessly your first try, feel free to stop reading here. And if you’re honest, read the rest, it’s where the message really kicks in:

 

“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 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 –

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.”

It’s not the most subtle; more evangelism than poetry, I’ll grant you that.  As I mentioned, tongue-twisting language that forces you to pay attention is prevalent in Hopkins’ works, and hopefully entertains as well. A major theme of this poem, and crucial to understanding Gerard Manley Hopkins worldview is the description of selving which is directly tied to Hopkins’ ides of inscape and instress, reminding you that:

“inscape is the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity.”

And

“instress is the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness.”

Or if you’d rather, to selve is to enact one’s identity (inscape).  Instress is the act of focusing on an object’s inscape with such attention as to gain an appreciation for the divine miracle that is the object’s existence. In “As Kingfishers catch fire”, Hopkins is marveling at the ability of the Kingfisher (a bird) to selve, or to reflect it’s inscape as it “fishes.”

myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

Another poem that I found especially enjoyable was, “The Sea and the Skylark”, in which Hopkins creates a stereoscopic vision in his description of a seaside scene. Here the assonance and alliteration of Hopkins is clear, as is his adoration for nature and its inscape.

“On ear and ear two noises too old to end

Trench – right, the tide that ramps against the shore;

With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,

Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

 

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,

His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinéd score

In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour

And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

 

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!

How ring right out our sordid turbid time,

Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,

 

Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:

Our make and making break, are breaking, down

To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first

Slime.”


Final Notes:

When reading the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I became increasingly aware of the awesome respect he has for the existence of things. The ability of a bird or a seaside to be what it is, is worth a reverie. Rather than pontificating the morality and dogma of his own religion, Hopkins is providing examples of the core of his beliefs – that each individual thing has its own identity (inscape), and to witness that identity (instress) is to experience God.


Little Black Classic No. 1: Mrs. Rosie and the Priest by Giovanni Boccaccio

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