A short essay on G. M. Hopkins’ “Kingfishers”

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[1], 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.[2] 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…

[1]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.

[2]There are several words in this poem that are grammatically ambiguous. Look at, for example, “Bow” in line 4 and “indoors” in line 6.

Legal Theft Flash Fiction: Negotiations Over Dirt

“So you want to buy some dirt? How much would you like?”

The voice was Mr Willis’, deep and sonorous as if the shopkeeper had been a chain-smoking actor in his younger days.

“Hmm. How much can I buy for £1.50?”

This voice was Daniel’s, measured and pronounced as if the 5-and-a-half year old were planning to be a businessman when he grew up.

“£1.50? You can get a lot of dirt for that. I can see you’re a man with a sharp eye for a bargin, so I’ll do you a special price. Quarter of a kilo for the lot. Dirt cheap.”

The opening offer was not perhaps what Daniel had expected. He put one hand against the counter glass (not being tall enough to put it on the counter) and the other fed him the fifty pence coin he grasped so tightly to suck. After a moment of contemplation, back came his return offer.

“I need some worms as well. Can you give me some worms?”

He knew how to drive a hard bargin, because Mr Willis had to lean back, look up at the ceiling and suck breath in through his teeth while he calculated his profits.

“Now worms are more expensive you see, they keep the soil alive.”

He brought his elbows back down on to the counter so he could whisper to the little boy in that silver screen voice.

“But I think I could manage to throw in a few for such a valued customer as yourself. Tell me, though, Daniel, what do you want with all this dirt, now?”

It was Daniel’s turn to be secretive, and he looked over his shoulder at the empty shop before he told his friend the cunning plan, hand cusped at the mouth.

“Mummy has a pot in the kitchen and she grows her tomatoes in it, and I want a pot for me in my room too.”

Fantastic. The young businessman had seen a lucrative sector dominated by a single corporation, and he was determined to break the monopoly by a risky start-up venture of his own.

“I see,” said Mr Willis. “Well, good luck to you, Mr Daniel, and I will make sure you have the best dirt money can buy for your flower pot. I’ll give you these little round pieces of dirt, which will allow lots of air and worms to get in between. Shall I put it in a paper bag for you?”

“Yes please thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, Mr Daniel.” And with that, Mr Willis took his scoop, shovelled a generous portion of Chocolate Toffee Balls and weighed them on his scales in a small, white paper bag. He then opened another jar of Fizzy Wigglies and threw in a few of the requested worms. Finally he took the paper bag, twisted the ends and expertly span it around in the air over itself so that none of the dirt would fall out. He leaned over the counter to be able to pass down the bag to his loyal customer, and receive the now well-sucked 50p and pound coin.

“Thank you, Mr Willis,” said Daniel in his measured, articulate tones. But before the shopkeeper could reply with his deep sonorous voice, the shop’s bell rang, and in stepped a woman juggling a couple of carrier bags and car keys.

“The competition is here, Mr Daniel,” said Mr Willis, his eyes on the new entry.

“Have you chosen what you wanted yet, Daniel? We can go home when you’re done.”

“Absolutely, Mrs Brough. Daniel has just acquired my finest dirt at a very special price. We were just ensuring he had the right product for the right price.”

Daniel looked back at Mr. Willis, as he didn’t quite understand all the words that he had used. Mrs Brough wasn’t exactly clear on Mr. Willis’ meaning either, but she shook her head, smiled and held out one shopping-laden hand to Daniel. The small boy trotted up to her happily and was already opening the paper bag by the time he reached her hand.

“Say goodbye to Mr Willis, then.”

“Goodbye Mr Willis.”

“Goodbye Mr Daniel. Plant it right away if you want it fresh!”

The old man smiled his wicked smile, and the young boy smiled back, and his hand crept out of his mother’s to investigate his purchase.

“Don’t eat it now, Daniel, you’ll get yourself all dirty.”


I’m a thief! I stole the first line of this story from Gwendolyn’s blog “Apprentice Never, Master”. Go check out her original story about dirt!

Dream of the Rood

I want to tell you a dream like no other
One that greeted me in the middle of night,
While boasting men dwelt in their own dreams.
It seemed I saw a wondrous tree raised
To the skies, and wrapped round with light, of trees
Sun-anointed – all of its bark was gold!
And fine jewels were stood at its finger tips,
And five more were stood at its shoulder joints.
This was indeed no gallows for a felon,
But, beautifully destined, a great angel host
Gazed on it there, and spirits sanctified,
And earthen men, and all creation great!
This triumph tree was high, sinful was I,
Stained and wounded low with unrighteousness.
And wound with clothes I saw the glory tree,
And robed with gold, and shining bright with joy;
The worthy King’s tree was covered with gems!
And yet behind the gold I could perceive
The old struggle of wretched men, for then
It first began to bleed on the right side.
Distressed with cares, afeared before this sight,
I saw this doomed standard’s cloths and hue change:
In part the moisture ran, the flow of blood
Drenched it through; in part the treasure remained.
I lay some time in sorrow there, and watched
The Healer’s tree, and then I heard it speak!
These were the words of the blessed of all trees:
“Long ago, and yet I remember still,
I was cut down, being at the forest’s edge,
And enemies strong tore me from my roots,
Made me a show and outlaws to bear me;
They shouldered me until they reached the hill
Where many foes set me fast – and the Lord
Of Man, noble, ran to climb upon me!
I dared not bend against the Word of God,
To break when I saw the whole of Earth shake.
I could have felled the foe, but still I stood.
The young man – who was Almighty God – stripped,
Strong and steady; he climbed the gallows high
Because he wished to redeem Man to Life,
And so many call him wonderful brave.
And when the man embraced me I trembled!
I dared not bend to earth or fall to ground.
A cross I was raised up, but still I stood.
I raised up Omnipotent King, Heaven’s Lord.
I dared not bend. They drove dark nails in me;
On me the wounds were seen, the open scars.
I dared not hurt a soul. They mocked us both
Together – bowls of blood from the man’s side
Soaked me through when he sent his spirit up.
On that hill I suffered many cruel deeds:
I saw the Lord of hosts in spasm jerk.
Darkness clothed the Light of the World with clouds,
The shadow went forth, dark under the sky.
The whole World wept and mourned Messiah’s fall:
Christ was crossed.

Caedmon’s Hymn

Now must we praise the Protector of Paradise,

The Moulder’s might and his mind’s intent,

The Gloryfather’s graft, as He, Eternal Emperor,                 

Bound a beginning for each of his boons.

First for his earth’s folk the Hallowed Founder

Scored a sky – the heavens for thatch;

The Champion of his children and Living Lord

Next marked the mass of middlearth,

The firm foundation, Almighty God.

Sonnet IV

Delay, o do not come just yet, my one,
Pull back the reins of time, and slow your gait.
You need not hurry, dither a while on,
Beneath a sleepy willow sit; I’ll wait.
How fickle I must seem to press so long
For speed alone to be your vital aim,
And then myself to change and switch my song
To nocturnes sweet and slow, yea! almost lame!
But quick it may have been, my change of heart
Is not for fear of poverty in you;
Instead, I ‘wait fulfilment, told in part,
Of wealth in your face and hand, as with few.
Or shall I disappoint you, needing time
To ready myself for the church bell’s chime?

The Librarian

I’m the librarian, I guard the books.
I don’t keep them locked up,
I spread them around like lots of butter.
My books are free-range bred.
They need the space to run around.
If there’s not enough space
Then how will the characters
Be able to get out of their shelves?
Winnie the Pooh needs space
To explore the wood and the leaves.
I’m the librarian, I shepherd the books.
If they’re not herded to their right shelves
No one will be able to visit,
No one will be able to play with them.
With my shepherd’s crook,
I keep the books safe,
I keep the wolves away who tear my flock apart.
No wolf will get to my books.
I’m the librarian, I tend the books.
The ones that are sick and need some stiches
I take aside and hold them very carefully.
I put on my glasses so I can see clearly
And I wrap the book up in new cloth
And send it back to its family.
I’m the librarian, I talk with the books.
At the end of the day, when it’s seven o’clock,
I walk my rounds and check them all.
Some of them talk to me, and I listen carefully,
Some of them want to cry with me,
Some of them want to laugh with me,
And I cry with them and I laugh with them.
I’m the librarian. I guard the books.

The Balloon

Bobbing about with a general direction of up,
Giggles and wiggles the laughing balloon in the air.
Better for lack of a track or a trail, on a puff
Of the wind, winds its own way through the sky debonair!

Small though it is in the sky of the noon of the day,
Red against blue in the cloudlessness catches the eye,
Ready to pop and burst like an ink sac in drink,
Spreading its colours, like hands, to the dusk of the sky.

Still clinging onto the end of the sphere is a string;
Dangling, it now has no use, but has come for the ride,
Joining the daring escape of a child-owner’s grip,
Playing the role – with a smile – of the shoestring with pride!

Bobbing about with a general direction of up,
Giggles and wiggles the laughing balloon in the air.
Better for lack of a track or a trail, on a puff
Of the wind, winds its own way through the sky: debonair!

Sonnet VIII

This common Sun that inks the sky with blue,
And suckles warm the grass, the hedge, the trees,
That lightly points the way for us to see,
And sources life essential, good and true;
This moving Sun with universal view,
That gives the birds their song with brightened key,
And with it sets the dungeoned shadows free;
This painting Sun, He daubs our hues anew.
In evening all the more you wash my room,
Like bleeding colours, dying from the sky –
Die not by night! Be covered not with gloom!
My life is dead when I in darkness lie!
“Extinguished, I must battle all this night,
That you become, at dawn, my suns of light!”

Sonnet VII

O how I hate to rite with flimsy words!
Themselves they are but pencil-lead and ink
That would usurp fair Nature, trees and birds,
Emotions, beauty, hunger, food and drink.
As if the world could fit inside my gob
To be regurgitated at my will!
An orange whole would prove too great a job,
For can you taste its juice by writer’s skill?
And if my pain to squeeze the poem’s metre
Will not perform this very little thing,
What chance have I – O how can I reheat
Her wounded love with poetry! O God!
I wish that I were dumb and had no books;
For one wrong word outspoken killed her looks.