Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman ...
Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman Catholic convert, and priest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would like to return to Gerard Manley Hopkins, that impressionist in language whose poems are verbally fascinating even while difficult.

Today’s Hopkins poem, in spite of its seeming complexity, nonetheless has a very simple message, as we shall see upon unravelling its seeming tangles.  It is called:


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 What I do is me: for that I came

I say more: the just man justices;
   Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
   Christ.  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. 

I feel like beginning with the old biblical phrase, “Which is, being interpreted….”  It often seems that is what one does with Hopkins, a translating from Hopkinsese into ordinary English.  Let’s begin, bit by bit:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

Just as kingfishers reflect the bright daylight (“catch fire”) by their irridescent blue feathers, dragonflies also catch and reflect the sunlight as the color red (“flame”).  Thus Hopkins begins with the sense of sight:  kingfishers reflect the light as irridescent blue; dragonflies (at least some of them) reflect the light as red.

Now Hopkins moves from sight to sound:

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells /Stones ring; 

If a stone or pebble is thrown or dropped or falls over the rim of a round well (from which people used to get their water), it will “ring,” meaning it will make a sound not only if it strikes other stones or bricks in the well lining as it falls, but it will also “ring” (Hopkins uses the term loosely” by striking the water with a resounding “Plop!”

So just as kingfishers reflect light as blue irridescence, and just as dragonflies reflect light as a flame-red color, in the same manner stones make a distinctive sound if dropped into a well.  And Hopkins continues by saying that also in the same manner,

 …like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s /Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Just as each “tucked” (in its seldom-used sense of “plucked,” “pulled”) string (such as a harp string) makes its sound (“tells”), each bell, hanging on its support, when swung back and forth in its bow-like arc, will create a sound (“find’s tongue,” too,  as a man’s tongue or language enables a man to speak) that it sends out near and far through the air — to “fling” the sound ” abroad.  Now Hopkins carries his “just as” illustrations even farther:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
   Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Each mortal thing — each thing that passes away and dies, of which the prime example here is mankind — does the very same one thing.  It “deals out that being indoors each one dwells.”  That rather difficult, telegraphic sentence is Hopkinsese for “Every living thing does the same thing as the kingfishers, the dragonflies, a dropped stone, a plucked string  and the bells:  It manifests its being — its particular character — in a specific way. It gives out (‘deals out’) that which is (‘dwells’) inside (‘being indoors’) of each person.  It reveals and bespeaks the nature of that person.”  It “selves” — expresses the self of that thing or person — which we can think of as a verb here.

A kingfisher “selves” (expresses its nature) by reflecting an irridescent blue light; a dragonfly “selves” by reflecting a red color; a stone dropped in a well “selves” by the sound it makes  And every mortal thing — every human in particular, also “selves” (expresses its individual nature) — it “goes itself.”  A bell goes “bongggggg,” and a human also goes….well, we shall see what Hopkins has to say about that.

But for now, each mortal, living thing expresses its self-nature.  “Myself it speaks and spells.”  In its individual expression, it says and spells out clearly, “This is myself; this is what I am.”

And now Hopkins begins bringing us to his real point, the point of the poem as a whole.  First we were told that each individual thing bespeaks or expresses its own nature in one way or another.   Now Hopkins goes even farther:

I say more:  the just man justices;

Let’s put this in very simple terms.  Existence, really, should be understood not as a noun, but as a verb.  Nothing can “be” without also manifesting in some way, and that manifesting is an action, it is a verb.  So a cow “cows,” a leaf “leafs,” rain “rains.”  So in the same way, it is the nature of a just man to “justice,” to express his just nature, his uprightness, his honesty, through his very being.  He gives off justice — “justness” just as a kingfisher gives off irridescence or a dragonfly a red color or a stone its “plop” into water or a bell its “bong.”

Furthermore, a just man “keeps grace,” he manifests grace, which means not only attractiveness and charm, but also has religious overtones here, because we know Hopkins became a Jesuit.  So grace here means also “The divine influence which operates in men to regenerate and sanctify,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.

Hopkins is telling us that the just man “justices,” he manifests his inward justness, his inward honesty, and that keeps all of his “goings” — his activities and being — graceful — grace-full — in both the sense of attractiveness in his being and manner, but also manifesting the influence of the divine.

Hopkins tells us that such a man “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Christ.”  This is the Christian notion that when a man is filled with divine influence, he manifests the divine, which for Hopkins is Christ.  He is “Christly” — Christ-like in his being and activities.  He “puts on Christ,” as is said in the New Testament.

Hopkins expands on that thought:

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. 

Wherever a man is just and honest and manifests the influence of the divine,  Hopkins says, Christ is in that man, Christ acts in that man.  That is how Christ can “play in ten thousand places,” can act in ten thousand (just a number to indicate a great many) men who manifest him.  And so in such men Christ is seen “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”  Such a Christ-manifesting man becomes lovely in his appearance and motions, so that when one looks in his eyes, one sees “Christ” though the eyes are the eyes of each individual man.  And that, Hopkins says, is “lovely to the Father”  meaning lovely to God — who sees it through the features of men’s faces.  Christ appears to other men and to God through the features and actions of Christ-like, “just” men.

The Quakers would say that such a just man is showing the “Inward Light” through his outer life and being.

One gets the point Hopkins wanted to make, though when one explains it in such detail it seems rather heavy-handed, which is why it sounds much better in poetry than in prose.

The essence of the poem is that each thing and each creature manifests its own distinctive self-nature.  The self-nature of a just man, Hopkins believed, was that of Christ, though it appears in the arms and legs and eyes of humans.

We may think that Hopkins stretched logic a bit, but nonetheless the basic truth is there — that each person will express the kind of person he or she is — whether good or bad or indifferent — through his or her actions and being.  Hopkins presents it to us in Christian terms, speaking of “Christ” and “God,” but it is still true without those terms and in a non-Christian context.

Put in that way, it seems rather self-evident.  That is why some may feel that there is more poetry in the words Hopkins uses in this poem than in the point made by those words.  Is it worth all the work necessary to decipher Hopkins’ odd phrasings and use of language?  That is up to the individual.

One additional note.  On reading the lines

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…

one cannot help seeing a faint reflection of them in Thomas Merton’s poem to his brother dead in war, Sweet Brother, If I Do Not Sleep:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:



  1. Lyn

    More than anything I want to thank David for his detailed analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems. I love the artistry, execution and beauty of the poets work but confess to being at a loss sometimes to the meaning. David your guidance has helped and delighted me a great deal………..thank you!

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