{Fri 23 March 2007}   Each mortal thing selves

What is it to be oneself? To which of the many values I hold should I be true? Every morning I wake with thoughts like these already challenging me. They sometimes nudge, sometimes scream. Which set of compromises will I engage in today? Are these compromises betrayals, or are they the appropriate negotiations of an adult and flexible mind?

The first stanza of this sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins has been playing over and over in my mind for days now. It contains the essence of the thing that I am crying out for: that I must “selve”, be congruent, be able to say “What I do is me”. But how? Kingfishers do it naturally, without thought, but that is not within the capacity of humans, it seems.

Unless they’re saved, of course. GMH’s resolution in the second stanza is that “the just man” is more than himself. When he is just, he expresses not only his own righteousness, but that of Christ, which is “more” than any other mortal being can do. The picture he conjures of the consequent elevation of man and the implied adoring gaze of God upon this composite expression of Christ is at once beautiful and alienating to me. I think GMH is saying that we find and express our true nature in Christ, and that it is as natural for us to do this as it is for kingfishers to catch fire and dragonflies to draw flame, but this does not answer my cry. If kingfisherness is enough for the kingfisher, why cannot Tia-ness be enough for me, and for any god who looks on me? The theological answer is original sin, of course. The kingfisher cannot sin, and is not born with the burden of the sins of previous generations. It is only we humans who are trapped like Sisyphus before we are conceived. As I think of this, I feel ill. I am actually nauseated by the injustice of this theology!

I also find the masculine language alienating – it’s all about a male Son relating to a male Father through men. And yes, I’m fully aware that “man” and “men” in this context probably are intended to be inclusive of all (saved) humanity, but the patriarchalism still narks me.

And yet, and yet, I still love this poem, all the way to the last full stop. Its internal logic and the pulse of its argument are compelling. I love the way most of the lines begin with a strong beat which drives its conviction home. And the transcendence it suggests is possible still speaks to my longing.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

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 goings 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.

(poem text copied from Poetry Connection)

swede1875 says:

I love this poem too. Sad however that you feel somewhat alienated by the male references. I think Hopkins lived a life with mostly men surrounding him, and he probably never had a though about that women could feel this way. Late in his life he evolved a deep friendship with Kathleen Turner. It would have been wonderful to listen in to their conversations with this in mind.


Tia says:

Hi Joakim, sorry it’s taken so long for me to respond! I realise, of course, that Hopkins was a creature of his times and of his faith, so my reaction is not really against him, but against the whole patriarchal culture of which he was inevitably a part. I think it’s difficult for a man to comprehend this particular sense of alienation, unless, for instance, you experience being either overtly disadvantaged or subtly diminished in a culture that automatically assumes you to be inferior and incapable. I’m surprised that with all my reading about Hopkins I wasn’t aware of his friendship with Kathleen Turner. I suppose my reading was guided by whatever my teachers thought was relevant. Thanks, I’ll look it up.

swede1875 says:

Lol. Of course I mean Katharine Tynan… It must have been some movie on the TV or something that made me get Kathleen on my mind instead of Katharine. ;-)

I’m afraid that equivalent alienation may struck both men and women, even the one who spurs from the patriarchal culture, so I know what you mean. The ones who are diminished is often the only ones who notices it, that’s why it is so important to talk (and blog) about it… We all have different perspectives and sometimes we don’t see what we do to others. I’ll guess that this is why there are so much oppression from good hearted people.

Mary says:


Your post reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s poem in homage to Hopkins!

Tia says:

Thank you, Mary, I didn’t know of this poem so I shall now look out for it. I remember reading The Golden Apples of the Sun when I was very young (around ten or so) and madly into sci-fi. I found it in my dad’s sci-fi library. I didn’t get on with it very well, so I didn’t read any more Bradbury, preferring John Wyndham, Asimov and Heinlein. Perhaps the time is right now to try again!

Mary says:

For what it is worth (and, I admit, I DO think the poem is worth it!):
The poem is called “What I Do is Me–For That I came” reprinted in Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing”.
I haven’t read much Bradbury myself, but I do love the poem.


Auden said that Hopkins was top-shelf material. I can imagine what someone approaching poetry for the first time, a novice would make of a poem like this, heaven forbid!

Tia says:

A friend of mine goes to this Hopkins festival every year – one of these years, I promise myself, I’ll be there! http://www.gerardmhopkins.org/festival/programme_2009.html

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