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Why are we here? How are we supposed to live? What really happens if we pull that tag off our mattress?
The big questions of life, Shmoopers, can haunt us for as long as we live. That's because none of us are given an instruction manual once we get here. We're left to our own devices to figure things out as best as we're able. What guidelines should we follow? How can we follow what's in we heart? Do we leave the tag on, or do we rip it off? (Seriously, we're worried about it.)
Luckily, we have poets to help us wrangle these challenges of existence. A lot like professional wrestlers, they tackle those big, bad problems head on and try to pin them down to make some sense out of them. One guy who really leapt off the top rope in his work is Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Hopkins devoted his lines to figuring out humanity's place in both the natural world and in God's cosmic order. That was no casual interest. Hopkins, who was born near London in 1844, grew up in a well-to-do, artistic family. At the age of 22, he converted to Catholicism and became an ordained priest in 1877. A lot of his poetry is devoted to questions about the role of God and Nature in our lives. In the process of asking them, he uses densely-packed imagery and unconventional rhythms that still have some critics scratching their heads today.
They didn't start scratching until after he died, though. None of Hopkins' poems made it into print until 1918, but by then he'd been dead nearly thirty years, having passed away from typhoid fever in 1889. His poetry has been wowing folks ever since, and today he's known as a major poet of the Victorian age.
"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is a prime example of the triple threat that Hopkins brings to the table. Questions about God? Check. Engagement with Nature? Check. Challenging imagery and unconventional rhythms? You better believe that's a check. "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" focuses its attention on that inner kernel of essence that makes every one of us who we truly are.
More than that, though, it's concerned about how we channel that essence through our actions. Do we really do what we truly are? Yeah, think about that for a minute—or a thousand. Better yet, though, read this poem before you do.
"Keep it real," Shmoopers. "You do you." Or, as our buddy Shakespeare would say, "To thine own self be true."
Being true to your inner self has been the thing to do for a long time. The problem with this long-standing piece of advice, though, is one simple question: how do you if you really are being true? How can you tell when you're truly being yourself? Does someone come along and hand you an award? Does a "Keeping It Real" alarm go off?
Well, the speaker of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" has an idea or two. It's about taking action, about sending your own true essence into that wild blue yonder we call existence. Project the true, inner you in all that you do and, well, that's when you know you're keeping it real.
So check out this poem, which does more than drop an empty cliché on you. It's not settling for easy advice. Instead, it wants to think long and hard about what it means to truly connect with the essence of you, and then help you project that into the world. Now, isn't that better than a bumper sticker?
The Web of Hopkins
The Victorian Web is an awesome collection of articles, biography, and links for further Hopkins reading.
Here's a great quick-start resource for you—a brief bio and some handy links to Hopkins's work.
Looking for a more in-depth treatment of Hopkins's life and work? Look no further.
This video montage is really well-done, a fitting companion to the poem.
Frank Stewart's Take
The writer and editor shares his reading as part of the Favorite Poem soundtrack.
Poetry Out Loud
Here's a pretty impressive performance for the Poetry Out Loud competition.
Tom O'Bedlam's deep tones lend music to this poem.
Here's another take from a Librivox reader.
Here's a piece of music by composer John Mackey, inspired by the poem.
Hopkins at His Desk
Here's a younger Hopkins in his priest's habit.
Here's Hopkins again, rockin' a beard.
This bird seems to be glowing with intensity. We see where Hopkins got his idea.
"The Christian Self"
If you just can't get enough of the poem's inner workings, check out this article. It's about as thorough as its full title: "The Christian Self: Spiritual Ideals, Religious Symbolism, and Poetic Devices in Hopkins' 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame'"
The Major Works
Get all the good stuff (well, at least the major stuff) right here.