A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: On Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw flame…”

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:                   
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.

Excising this first stanza from the famed sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins—the quintessential poet of a kind of labyrinthal lyricism, one merging a highly-individuated mysticism with a dreamy sensuality where exuberant experimentation: ornamental alliterations, archaisms embedded among neologisms created through chains of compound adjectives (alas, missing here, but found most overtly in “The Windhover,” where the narrator observes the flight of one “king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”), and rhyme schemes that chime as much internally as at the end of lines, all of which never fail to dazzle—might, after all, be as much a mistake in its own right as the attempt to compress my thoughts about the poem itself in a single sentence; nevertheless, it was this poem’s initial complex sentence that inspired me to examine it, to regard the first half’s composition as a series of delays, burdening the reader with images of both a bird and an insect in flight (the bird a composite of both high and low: the “king” and “fisher,” as well as, presumably, an evocation of Jesus Christ, himself both a king and a maker of “fishers of men,” while also intimating the legend of the Fisher King; and then, also, the insect, a composite, too, of the mythological dragon with the earthly fly), the smattering of sounds: the ploop of stones dropped in “roundy” (a lovely colloquialism) wells, vibrating strings, and bells, of which one must marvel at how the handbell’s “tongue” conjures both its voice and its clapper—the notes of each thing evoked by those rhyming ells; delays that paradoxically (well, through Hopkins’s artful technique) thrust the reader forward toward drawing a metaphorical connection between the abovementioned imagery with the idea that every animate thing does one and the same thing: it “selves” (this functional shift, or verbification, is, perhaps, this sentence’s most exhilarating moment): that what it does is what it is and why it came; all of which speaks to me about the possibilities bubbling within language, and spells me, well, at least until I get weighed down, inevitably, by hours of limp local prose.

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10 thoughts on “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: On Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw flame…”

  1. Awesome piece, John. I remember laboring over The Windhover in college for a long time, and then re-using it much later for an explication assignment when I tried to do grad school a second time. Something so nice about his use of the word “buckle” — in that poem, in that it can be defined as two completely opposite things: to join together, or to break in half, and somehow, quite magically, both of these definitions worked perfectly in an interpretation of the line and the poem. That was always amazing to me. I was in Jesuit school for both high school and college, and GMH was a Jesuit, if I remember correctly, so my fondness was several-fold and has continued to grow.

    “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!”

  2. Thanks, Matty.

    And yes, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. Hopkins, besides all of his ingenious wordplay, made use of these idiosyncratic diacritical marks (as in the above “dráw fláme”), adding another tactile dimension to his poems, and also formulated thoughts about so-called sprung rhythm, his use of which I’d like to do more research on.

    And it is amazing how much of his word choices serve multiple functions, like “Buckle!” while still somehow, at least for me, escape from falling down from being overburdened.

  3. Golly gee, pretty goddamned great.

    Hopkins should be the ultimate lesson, as most of what he wrote was unpublished at the time of his death.

    His wikipedia entry talks about erotic influences and tries to suggest he might have had bipolar disorder – is it really necessary to trump this out? Can someone have created art without homo-eroticism and mental illness as an impetus?

    Words…

  4. i would have had no idea what the hell that poem was about if it were not for your reading of it, john. aside from that it felt like being tossed around on a sea of sound, and as such quite astonishes me the quicker that such depth of meaning can be found. and not simply that meaning is contained and conveyed, but fuck, encapsulating the nature of being in an 8-line poem. i still don’t understand some of the lines, but am enamored and catapaulted by the idea hopkins expresses, albeit i still need to refer to your extrapolation to grasp it: ‘selves’ as an activity and a reason for existence. that’s my life’s project, to read words that unpack that mystery, and in return sculpt words that aspire toward the same. thanks for unearthing this gem.

  5. Greg, this is not the question:

    Can someone have created art without homo-eroticism and mental illness as an impetus?

    But rather…

    Can wikipedia offer entries on writers without homo-eroticism and mental illness as content?

  6. “Never, never, never, never, never.” I can never get enough nevers for this sentence fragment from King Lear.

  7. Pingback: Sentences About a Loved Sentence « BIG OTHER

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