Letting the Words Win: G. M. Hopkins’ “When Kingfishers Catch Fire”

By Doug Jackson

Image by Doug Jackson
Image by Doug Jackson

One of my personal goals is to use the word bricolage in casual conversation – without getting punched in the kidney.

I like this word because it sounds like what it says. As a verb, it signifies “the construction or creation from a diverse range of available things.” As a noun, it denotes a thing so constructed. And as you say it out loud – which I strongly urge you to do, right now; go ahead, I’ll wait – your mouth does what you mean and your ear hears it done: you click two syllables against one another: bric-o. Then you mortar them into place with a nice gooey suffix: -age.

Humpty Dumpty takes a different approach in his famous lecture on linguistics. He declares, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” When Alice dares question the practice, Humpty Dumpty sniffs, “The question is, which is to be master—that’s all.”

It sounds very modern and liberated, but I wonder: Do we gain power when we master meaning, or when meaning masters us? At a crucial moment in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, professor Dimble prepares to conjure Merlin in the Great Tongue, the original speech from which all language derives. As he declaims,

great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth. . . .The voice did not sound like Dimble’s own: it was as if the words spoke themselves through him from some strong place at a distance – or as if they were not words at all but present operations of God, the planets, and the Pendragon. For this was the language spoken before the Fall and beyond the Moon and the meanings were not given to the syllables by chance, or skill, or long tradition, but truly in the shape of the great Sun is inherent in the little waterdrop. This was Language herself. . . .

Or as another, and even greater, writer once put it: “In the beginning was the word.”

So it seems to me that my task as poet and preacher is to get as close as I can to “Language herself,” to “the Word” that is with God and is God. And this is why I love Gerard Manley Hopkins and, in particular, his poem, “When Kingfishers Catch Fire.” The poem “means” more than I can ever know, and even I know more than I can say in a brief blog. But stop and listen to how it sounds:

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.

Recite it aloud; go ahead – I’ll wait, or even understand if you stay with the poem and don’t come back. But pay attention to what your tongue and teeth and lips are doing in that first stanza. Those darting k’s and f’s and d’s and f’s let you hold in your mouth the flickering flame of the bright bird and heraldic insect. Then suddenly, with “tumbled” and “roundy,” your mouth must open and slow its pace as your words lumber into a dark, cool space. But don’t get too comfortable: because now your tongue must pluck to pronounce “tuck” as if you are picking out an air on a lute. And now with “each hung bell’s/Bow swung finds tongue” you’re a human belfry tolling the Nine Taylors for the parish dead.

Do you see? Contra Humpty Dumpty, this is not language as random code but as meaning. I find the power in the words when I submit to the words; I gain mastery by being mastered.

Hopkins’ theme is that each of us must do the thing God has given us – must “selve,” in his lovely invented verb. The Apostle Paul called it the Body of Christ in which fingers must finger and not try to see or hear. The poet leads us through a series of selves, of selvings, a bricolage of being, if I dare phrase it so. He does not teach me to cry, “What I do is me: for that I came;” he tricks me into doing it. Until I let the words do as they please, not only with my mind but my body, I cannot unlock this power.

Asking me to name a favorite poem is like asking me to name a favorite element of the Eucharist or a favorite member of the Holy Trinity. But when I need to know what it means to speak “Language herself,” I go to Hopkins, and to this poem. The words cannot create worlds, but they go a long way toward creating me.


Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More, is available from Finishing Line Press.


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