TiaTalk











{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)



This essay by Timothy Steele has been around awhile, but it’s so well-written and its defense of the value of “meter, rhyme and stanza” is so well-supported with resonant examples that it still bears reading.

The Forms of Poetry by Timothy Steele, from The Brandeis Review, 12 (Summer 1992), 28-33

Today, I am particularly taken with these two passages:

“The original revolutionaries perceived more acutely what they wished to challenge or undermine—meter and rhyme in poetry, representation in painting and sculpture, conventional melodic arrangement in music—than what they wished to establish. As a result, the revolution had considerable destructive vitality, but it did not have comparable constructive powers to create alternatives to replace the conventions it swept away.”

“Meters reflect patterns of speech that occur naturally in language. Poets do not invent them out of thin air. To construct a new metrical system, one would first have to construct a new language, or the pronunciation or accentuation of the existing language would have to change radically. So once the battle the modernists fought had been won, their followers tended simply to maintain a somewhat meaningless spirit of rebellion, meaningless because the styles and attitudes against which the rebellion had been directed had ceased to exist.”

It seems an inevitable part of human experience that “the revolution”, after a heady period of free-spirited innovation, always acquires its own orthodoxy and becomes a vicious enforcer of “rules” of freedom. The insistence on the new way of seeing things as the only way of seeing things invalidates the experience, wisdom and creative productions of whole generations, and robs current generations of access to beauties and insights that have empowered and developed human consciousness for thousands of years.

This has always been the pattern with “renewals” in church history. At first they ride on a tide of openness, soul-searching, risk-taking and energetic action as people strive to “live out” their refreshed understanding of the meaning of their faith, sometimes taking great steps of love and courage and martyrdom which change lives and invigorate communities. But after a while, the actions become forms in themselves, nothing more than repeated, futile attempts to recreate the mysterious energy of spirit (Spirit?) that impulsed them so naturally before. The challenge to the status quo becomes the status quo, and the s/Spirit flees.

Why, oh why, is it so difficult for us to maintain “negative capability” (Keats) and realise that any form may contain or even generate mystery, that form does not preclude mystery and that neither form nor lack of form guarantee mystery?



et cetera