‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
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 do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: 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.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
I admit that I would leave this poem to stand alone on its own merit, or the hope that someone might be enticed to get acquainted with Hopkins (I can hardly recommend this strongly enough!). But I’m inclined to add a few words of my own to Hopkins’, if nothing else, to set this poem in the context of his thought as a whole.
Hopkins, a 19th century British convert to Catholicism and a member of the Jesuit order, was convinced that God’s assumption of human nature in Jesus Christ was profoundly good news. He recognized the significance of God-become-human in far deeper ways than most of us ever encounter. He thought (I’ll attempt a paraphrase – and hope not to embarrass him), “If God shows up in a manger in Bethlehem, why, he might show up anywhere!” Hopkins expected to see, and saw, Jesus show up through lots of particulars in his forty-four short years of life (see the poems: “Hurrahing in Harvest,” “The blessed virgin as compared to the air we breathe,” and his lengthy masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland“).
Hopkins saw that if God valued a particular moment, a particular body, a particular place enough to plant himself there – then all moment, bodies, and places must be tremendously valuable. God must be quite excited about all the particularities, intricacies, and anomalies that he has spun out into the world. This is the main theme of “Kingfishers”; each created thing has its own existence as a gift, be it a bell, piano string (“tucked” to make its own particular tone), or stone dropped to “plunk” uniquely in a well. Each is uniquely valued in God’s eyes. Each flame and flower announces to the world, “Here I am! I am here to be what God has made me for.” Far from being a faceless speck – only one anonymous bit of carbon amongst a vast sea of faceless “others,” the good news of God’s becoming human is that he plays in ten thousand places. That means that all of those ten thousand places (or ten million) are wonderfully dignified.
I’ve been told that Christians are the people who ignore the realities of this present world, preferring instead to stare off into the clouds and sing pretty hallelujahs. There may be some empirical truth behind the accusation. But if Hopkins is right about the meaning of the events by which we recognized God-among-us, Christians are the ones looking to find Jesus wherever he might be found today (see the poem Ribblesdale).
The other root of Hopkins’ deep faith in the importance of particular things was the weekly celebration of the Eucharist (he would say “Mass”), in which God meets people in bread and wine. Imagine that! We spend so much time looking for gods within us, or off in some transcendent haze; all the while, God was at Bethlehem, and God is being shared among the people of the church down the street.
Let me try to make this even clearer – if God shows up in history, then history has profound meaning. If God shows up in a body, then bodies must be pretty important. If God walks on dirt, breathes air, and drinks water, these things must have a lasting value that transcends their mere appearance. However, notice what I am not saying. I am not suggesting that we should divinize everything and everyone we look at. I am not saying that we should pretend that we have no need for God, and that all the importance and dignity we need is built-in. Rather, only the person who sees God as the baby at Bethlehem will be able to see the world as it truly is – beloved of God and worthy of his blood.