Study Guide to As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame

Study Guide to “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”

Once believed to be a later poem, “As kingfishers catch fire” is now widely accepted as one of the eleven sonnets Hopkins wrote in Wales in 1877. Like several others from this period, the poem begins with an image of a bird and connects the bird’s activity to truths about the nature of reality, God, and humanity. Although the poem was neither titled nor mentioned in any of Hopkins’s letters, it is often seen as the fullest expression of one of Hopkins’s central poetic ideas: “inscape,” a concept he derived from the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus (see also “Duns Scotus’s Oxford“).

Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:

  • Notice the allusions to musical instruments-Hopkins was himself an accomplished musician and lover of music. What does the speaker mean in suggesting that the sound something makes is its way to “fling out broad its name”?
  • The poem contains a signature piece of Hopkins terminology, “selves” (used as a verb). How and why does the speaker imagine existence as a specific kind of activity unique to each created thing?
  • At the beginning of the sestet, the activity described is no longer a sound (like a stone ringing) or an image (like the glint of sunlight on a kingfisher’s wing) but rather justice. How do you explain this shift in focus?
  • How should we understand the word “plays” in line twelve? How does the activity of Christ in the sestet connect to the activities described in the octave?

For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology:
alliteration | assonance | consonant-chiming | inscape | instress | sprung rhythm

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