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: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
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.
I love this little poem. Like most of Hopkins, it is “difficult” in that the language he uses is very different from what we are used to, either in poetry or in ordinary speech. But he is worth your time.
Although the sense may at first appear to be obscure, the poem’s sound is accessible to all readers. The sound of lines 2-4 make them my favourite of the poem. What is going on? Maybe the first time we read the poem, we’re not really sure. There is something to do with stones and wells, strings and bells with tongues, but beyond that we would have to get down on our knees and get muddy with verbs and nouns and predicates and syntax. But read the lines aloud and you hear something wonderful. Alliteration flows in between the verses – there is the overlap of “t”, “r”, “st” and “b” at the beginning of the most important words. Then there are the extra rhymes. Rhyme appears at the end of a line, but it is also mixed in and amongst: “ring”, “string”, “fling”; “wells”, “tells”, “bells”; “hung”, “swung”, “tongue”. Well, so what? What is the point of all this intricate use of sound? Partly, Hopkins is playing with the noises like a child on a piano: for joy! Partly, the sounds point us to the sense of the sentences themselves. The noises of the words start at the back of the mouth before being projected forward, in imitation of the objects in question: “tucked” and “string” is back, but “tells” is at the lips. Partly, Hopkins is stuffing his poem full of complex sounds and meanings to echo the polyphonic harmonies that he perceives in nature around him. It’s a kind of impressionist painting in words where the artist sees more colours in a landscape than we usually stop to take in.
However, there is more to the poem than just three lines! The last line of the poem’s first part (called the octet) has often been misquoted to support a spirit of individualism. Granted, there are many words of the “I”, “me” and “myself” sort. But Hopkins is not describing just himself, nor just mankind. “Each mortal thing”, including the kingfishers and dragonflies of the first line, is being described. The kind of purpose that Hopkins is writing about is one that is shared between man, birds, stone and string. We all have “self” and we all “speak” it. This is not individualism, as if the stone were trying to stay true to itself! The stones can’t help ringing aloud when they’re dropped down the well! On the contrary, Hopkins is describing something common.
It’s a good thing the poem doesn’t end there. If it did, we would still wonder, “What is this common element?” It seems to be something to with sound and names – that we all have a voice, perhaps? Maybe. Hopkins goes on: “I say more”. From this line to the last but one, the most important words are repeated: “just”, “grace”, “God”, “Christ”, “lovely”. Christ is just. Christ is graceful (in both senses, merciful and beautiful). But the loveliness of Christ comes out in “ten thousand places” and in “limbs, and… eyes not his”, i.e. we see Christ in the world around us, even in the bodies and eyes of people who are not themselves Christ! That means you! and me! Christ is the common element; he can be seen in his creation, and in the beauty of his creation we can see him. The final line sums this up through more alliteration: the “Father” is in the “features” of men’s “faces”.
That, I believe, is the heart of Hopkins’ poem. If you read more of his poetry, you will see that he very often dwells on nature and its beauty. It is his frequent topic because Hopkins, by his faith, sees that nature is created well, and is therefore sacred. But Hopkins also maintains that an important part of all this is language. Through the Word (that is, Christ) the world was created, and each poem that Hopkins writes is a little echo of that creation. Now we have a reason why Hopkins is difficult, and why he throws the grammar book out of the window sometimes. Words are sacred too, and does not apologise for exploring their full worth and ability to express who God is.
One more thing. Do you notice that the poem is fourteen lines long? It’s a sonnet, like a love sonnet of Shakespeare’s. A love sonnet to whom? you might ask…
On first reading, we might also miss that the word “tongue” has a double meaning; it is a metaphor for human tongues, but it is also a technical word for a bell’s clapper.
There are several words in this poem that are grammatically ambiguous. Look at, for example, “Bow” in line 4 and “indoors” in line 6.