Being Indoors: The Indwelling of Christ in Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

By Thomas Fickley


Fred Nichols -- Rapidan Summer (2000)

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part devotional series on incorporation and action — who we are in Christ, and what we do as Christians. Fr. Mark Perkins first reflected on Christ’s invitation in John 1 to join him in the Father’s bosom; then he considered how good works flow from ontology in Colossians. In this third and final essay, Thomas Fickley reflects on what it means to be Christ in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”


Among the many recurring themes of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, one of the most prominent is the correspondence between a thing’s inner nature and its outward manifestations. This integrity is the focal point of his stunning sonnet “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, one of seven nature sonnets he wrote in 1877.


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.


In a letter penned two years after he composed this poem, Hopkins quipped to his friend Robert Bridges, “No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” While the cadence of his sharply honed sprung rhythm is enjoyable and attractive even to those who have little sense of what the lines mean, the oddness with which Hopkins indicts himself can make his poetry both hard to understand and easy to misinterpret, even (and maybe especially) for those who are intimately familiar with his work. For example, in his analysis of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, the late Professor Mitchell Kalpakgian explores how small and seemingly mundane acts (dancing, singing, letter-writing, hospitality, beautiful smiles, athletes excelling, etc.) shed grace abroad into the world. In his reading of the poem, Kalpakgian looks at the way “ordinary things” leave a trail of divinity behind them. In his words,

“...all good deeds and just actions emit grace-- God’s presence in the world bringing light into the darkness, God’s voice bringing music to the ears, and God’s word transfiguring the world. Grace charges the atmosphere and renews the face of the earth. When each person-- whatever his station or vocation in life-- 'Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is', a source of grace to others, then the world revels with joy.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins photographed by George Giberne

Kalpakgian, who taught English for more than three decades at Simpson College in Iowa and passed away in 2018, offers conclusions that explain the octave well -- although he misses some essential points from the octave's second half -- but he ultimately fails to account for how the sestet makes sense of and extends the octave’s main point. This also leads him to some tenuous applications of the poem’s opening lines:

“Every time someone receives a personal letter, the surprise of a gift, or a friendly visit, a kingfisher catches fire. Each time a person radiates a smile, initiates friendship, extends hospitality, or sends invitations for festive occasions, dragonflies draw flame.”

In effect, every small act of kindness shares God’s grace with the world. The theological term for this idea is common grace. Every beautiful thing, every good act, every true word is ultimately connected to the source of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. In some ways this is an appropriate reading; Hopkins does delight in common grace in many of his poems. In “Pied Beauty”, he concludes his celebration of multicolored and varied phenomena with, “He fathers-forth, whose beauty is past change / Praise him.” “God's Grandeur” also dwells on the way God's presence is veiled just behind all facets of the world; the poem "reads revelation from deep inside the things of the world. It regards Revelation not as a comet that has flicked the world but more as a king wave that has finally broken and soaked deeply into things." If attended to carefully, the world does reveal a "dearest freshness, deep down things" which remains alive and active despite man's trampling and searing of the world's goodness. Kalpakgian reads “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” in a similar way: God’s presence inheres in many seemingly ordinary things.


As fitting as this description is to reality and to many of Hopkins’ poems, it does not quite strike at the heart of what Hopkins conveys with his dazzling array of things acting out what they are in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Common grace is not the primary focus of the poem; in fact, employing the lines in the service of common grace obscures the poem’s main point and detracts from its real power.


The poem is best understood as an exploration of the old Thomistic adage “agere sequitur esse”, or “action follows being”. To use Jesus’ words, “a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44a). Jesus’ parable and Hopkins’ verse focus primarily upon the nature of things (ontology) rather than what those things do (activity). The “fruit” or action done by a subject discloses its inner nature, and the action is therefore worth attending to primarily for what it reveals about the subject. In order to make sense of Hopkins’ main point, the second half of the octave is worth reading carefully:


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.


When Hopkins writes, “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same/ deals out that being indoors each one dwells”, he is saying that a thing does what a thing is. After the volta Hopkins turns this conclusion to the most complicated of selves. “I say móre,” he goes on, preparing his readers for a further meditation on the same idea he has been exploring through birds, bugs, bells, and other created objects.


However, the sestet’s new and more profound subject is not just an addition-- “more” examples added to a list-- but an extension of the ontology he introduces in the octave. Bells ring, the wings of birds catch sunlight, and stones dropped into water echo. But people are a different sort of thing. They have wills. They have minds. They can make decisions and either act in accordance with the moral law inside of them, or not. And yet Hopkins affirms, “The just man justices.”


The question that this poem quite naturally raises is who is the just man who justices? The answer must be inferred, since it is not clearly spelled out, but if a person can only “deal out that being indoors each one dwells,” then only those with Christ inside of them can do the sorts of things Hopkins celebrates in the sestet. I don’t think this is a leap outside of the text. Read in the light of the poem’s overall message, Hopkins’ six lines about the actions of the “just man” press us to consider what sort of being could possibly produce such actions. Good souls “justice” and “keep grace” in the same way bells swung from rooftops can’t help but reverberate with music. When the just man “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is -- Christ”, the implication is that God sees Christ in the person in question.


In this reading, the whole poem illuminates the Christian's wondrous incorporation into Christ. The just are those united to the Justifier, and their natural tendency to do His works is the marvelous and resounding echo left over after reading the sestet. Though justice, one of the cardinal virtues, can be practiced by anyone, the one whose inner nature is oriented towards justice is the one who has God dwelling in his soul. If persons are governed by the same rules as the other created things explored in the octave, then this poem is more about the natural outcome of what Paul refers to as “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of Glory” (Col. 1:27).


So while Kalpakgian’s focus on beautiful, good, and true acts is fitting in a way, his ruminations are, strictly speaking, a celebration of common grace, which is at most a secondary consideration of the poem. To focus solely on common grace misses the center of the poem, which is Christ, and obscures the clear, though implicit, need to be filled with his Spirit in order to act like him. Though grace may be found in many places, and many persons show forth God’s power and beauty in their daily living, if we want to understand the “being indoors” of a just person, we must look to his position in Christ-- and Christ’s home in him.


Thomas Fickley teaches literature at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia.