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As Kingfishers Catch Fire

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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;
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.

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.


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"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" does what it describes: it asserts its unique identity and reason for existence. In the words of the poem, it is selving, flinging out its name, crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Also, it has been pointed out that all the accented words in this poem reinforces its description of the "thisness" or unique individuality of each thing that exists.

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As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Excerpt From SparkNotes:

The kingfisher, one of the most colorful birds in England, “catches fire” as the light brings its plumage to a bright radiance. Similarly, the iridescent wings of the dragonfly glint with a flame-like beauty. These two optical images are followed by three aural ones: the tinkling sound of pebbles tossed down wells, the plucking of strings on a musical instrument, and the ringing of bells as the “bow” swings like a pendulum to strike the metal side. Each of these objects does exactly what its nature dictates, in a kind of (unwilled) self-assertion. More generally, every “mortal thing” might be thought to do the same: to express that essence that dwells inside (“indoors”) of it. “Selves” (assumedly from the infinitive “to self,” or “to selve,”) is Hopkins’s coined verb for that self-enacting, and he elaborates upon this process in the lines that follow: to “self” is to go oneself, to speak and spell “myself,” to cry, “What I do is me: for that I came.”

"The next stanza extends this concept from object to man. “Justices” (from the made-up infinitive “to justice”) becomes the verb for that which the just man does or enacts. He harbors a grace (bestowed by God) that reveals itself in all his “goings” or everyday activities. And he acts before God as the being that God sees him as, which is Christ, who is both man and God. Christ dwells everywhere—in bodies and in the expressions of human eyes. It is the beauty lent by Christ’s presence that makes “the features of men’s faces” lovely in God’s sight.

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