Commentary on As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Capturing individuality

In the octave, Hopkins gives various examples of haecceitas; the individuality that defines each created thing, and yet which marks them as Kingfisher, photo by Ryan Chang, available through Creative Commonsbelonging to some sort of kind or genus. In Hopkins' theory of poetry he calls this the inscape. So the characteristic of kingfishers is to ‘catch fire', that is, appear like little darts of flame as they dive into the water. Hopkins was a very visual poet, and so such visual images came naturally to him. He was fascinated with birds (see The Windhover) - their movement, the shape of their flight, colour, song etc.

The purpose of being

As well as living things, even stones and bells have their haecceitas. Hopkins uses the conceit of them crying out, ‘What I do is me'. In Duns Scotus' philosophy, being is defined by action; individuality is active, not passive, and it has a telos or purpose. All the examples Hopkins gives are doing something utterly characteristic and thus proclaiming, ‘for that I came'.

The just person

In the sestet, Hopkins considers humanity, giving the example of the ‘just man'. In philosophy, a just person:

  • doesn't mean a judge or lawyer, but
  • someone who is rightly in balance or in tune with themselves
  • their judgements will be sound, as will all their actions
  • such a person ‘justices', which to Hopkins also means, theologically, ‘keeps grace'
  • for humans this means acting out God's purposes.

Christ with and within humankind

In Christian teaching:

But the teaching goes further. It says that:

  • Christ can enter human lives and be revealed in individuals as they live in obedience to God
  • the Bible talks of:
‘Christ in you, the hope of glory' (Colossians 1:27
‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith' (Ephesians 3:17)
‘until Christ is formed in you' (Galatians 4:19) TNIV
  • Hopkins expresses it as ‘what in God's eyes he is-/Christ'..

To Hopkins, this guaranteed:

  • the inner beauty of humanity, and
  • became ultimately the expression of God himself in the world, his second incarnation.
Investigating As Kingfishers Catch Fire
  • What is the distinctiveness of stones?
  • Gather up the words that suggest proclaiming one's identity.
  • What do you think ‘selves' means in l.7?
    • Compare this with ‘unselves' in ‘Binsey Poplars'.
  • How do you define yourself:
    • By your characteristics, or looks, or family?
    • Try defining yourself some other way.
      • How does it feel?
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