Gerard Manley Hopkins

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a fourteen-line poem that conforms to the pattern of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. This means that aside from the fourteen lines, there is a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows a pattern of ABBAABBA CDCDCD. 

Within Petrarchan sonnets, there are two halves, the first eight lines, or octet, which is followed by the sestet, a set of six lines. The octet always follows the rhyming pattern of ABBAABBA, but the sestet is open to change. The pattern Hopkins chose in ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ is one of the most traditional. 

Another element that marks As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ as a Petrarchan sonnet is the turn, or volta. This is a shift in the poem that can be seen through a change in narrator, belief, or setting. It can even consist of an answer to a question posed in the first half. In the case of this particular poem the first half supplies the reader with a few descriptions of how humanity experiences different happenings in the world. These experiences are the external projection of the examples they represent. In the sestet, the speaker changes tactics and describes how this is true for the inner world as well. He also brings God into the poem and states that he wants all creatures and objects to act in a truthful way. 

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins


Sprung Rhyme 

Petrarchan sonnets generally also make use of iambic pentameter. This is a pattern of meter in which each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. Contrary to the traditional pattern, Hopkins makes use of a technique he is now well-known for. 

This is a kind of meter known as “sprung rhyme.” It can be seen through the grouping of stressed syllables that come upon the reader suddenly. He chose to write this way throughout the majority of his poetic works in order to better imitate human speech. He was more interested in the lines sounding as if they were actually spoken than conforming to a traditional unstressed/stressed pattern. 


Summary of As Kingfishers Catch Fire 

‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a sonnet that speaks on grace and the true nature of animate and inanimate beings. 

The poem begins with the speaker giving a few examples of how things, animate and inanimate, show their inner selves. The kingfisher catches “fire” as do the “dragonflies.” There is the sound of a rock falling in a well, and that of a hammer hitting the inside of a bell. These are the purposes of these objects and animals. 

Through their expression of their inner selves, they grow close to God. This is the same for human beings. If one taps into their most essential self, then they too will be inhabited by Christ and seen in a good light by God. 


Analysis of As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Stanza One 

Lines 1-4

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; 

In the first lines of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ the speaker begins by bringing the title into the poem. There are “kingfishers,” a kind of bird that is coloured orange and blue, on fire. Luckily, this is just a way for the poet to describe the vibrancy of their colours. He goes on to use a simile to describe the dragonflies in a similar way. They too are colourful and “draw flame.” When they fly they both seem to be pulling fire along with them. 

The next lines provide another example of object and connected imagery. He speaks on a round well. There are “Stones” falling into the ring of the well and hitting the bottom. The sound they make is what’s important.

The final line of this half of the octet describes the way a bell makes sound. The “Bow” of the bell, that is the inside, is struck by the hammer. Hopkins uses personification to make it seem as if the bell is choosing to make its own sound— as if it is flicking out its own “tongue” to say “its name.” 

So far, with these four images, Hopkins appears to be interested in playing on the reader’s senses. Sight and sound have been triggered. It becomes clear later that the example Hopkins chose are not important, it is the fact of their expression he cares about. 


Lines 5-8

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. 

In the fifth line, the speaker describes the kingfisher, dragonfly, stone well, and the bell as “mortal thing[s].” They all do “one thing and the same.” That “one” thing that the “things” all do is deal “out that being.” The objects and creatures express something integral to their own being. The statements in the first four lines are the true expressions of existence for the kingfisher, dragonfly, stone well, and bell. 

The inner being the speaker is interested in is described in the seventh line of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ as “Selves.” They all do what they need to do, they express themselves uniquely and that expression is their own being. The same can be said for the speaker who adds that what he does for himself is what he came for. 


Stanza Two 

I say móre: the just man justices; 

Keeps grace: thát 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. 

Between the last line of the octet and the first line of the sestet, there is a turn, or volta, in the poem. This is a change from the first half to the next. The first line tells the reader that a “just man justices.” This relates directly to everything he had previously been saying. Whatever one has inside them, that is expressed. So, simply enough, a just man is “just” and therefore he does “justice.” 

If one does as their inner nature intends for them to do, then they “Keep…grace.” This brings the poem into the realm of religion. A human being acting in the way their internal self wants them to is doing right by God. They will be in his grace. 

This is expressed again in the next lines by saying that a good man does in “God’s eye” what he is. In the next lines he goes on to say that Christ is in “ten thousand places” at once. He is in all living things, such as “limbs” and “eyes” that are “not his.” Those who do as God wills them to have Christ inside them. He is present there for God and in order to take note of those who act as their natures intend. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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