Study Guide

As Kingfishers Catch Fire Stanza 1

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Stanza 1

Lines 1-4

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;

  • We start the poem off with a kingfisher—on fire. Yikes. Somebody better help him out.
  • Oh, wait—that's just some figurative language being dropped, Shmoopers.
  • Before we get into that, though, we should point out (in case you didn't know) that a kingfisher is a small, colorful bird that, well, likes to eat fish. It does this by diving into the water and plucking little fishies out with its long beak.
  • When you see these guys in action, you get a sense of what the speaker is describing as "catch[ing] fire." Those bright colors flashing in motion almost seem like a flame shooting through the air.
  • And speaking of flames, dragonflies "draw" those, too—just like the kingfisher. Here the speaker is using a simile to compare these colorful, winged animals to one another. He's also linking them together in a visual metaphor. Both look like fire moving through the air.
  • Our speaker's not done linking, though. We have another "As" to start line 2, which lumps "stones" in with both the kingfisher and dragonfly.
  • To understand that clearly, it's helpful to know that line 2 is rolling out some inverted syntax here. "Stones" are hanging out in line 3, but they are really the subject of what's going on in line 2. Namely, these stones have "tumbled over" the rim of a round well and made an echo-y sound ("ring") as they did.
  • So, to sum up thus far: we have kingfishers and dragonflies looking like firebolts moving through the air, and we have stones falling into a well and making some noise as they do.
  • The comparison keeps building as we move through line 3. Next we have a "tucked string" and a "hung bell's/ Bow."
  • "Tucked" is best thought of as "plucked" here. Think of a guitar string that is plucked by someone who plays it.
  • And a "bell's/ Bow" is not a bow and arrow. It's actually the part of a bell that gets struck by the inside hammer. Think of giant church bells getting pulled on by ropes. As they start to swing, the hammer starts to bang against the bell's bow and that's what makes it ring out.
  • Here the speaker whips out some personification to describe a bell making a sound. It "finds tongue to fling out broad its name" (4), speaking its name (making its sound) for all to hear ("broad" just means widely).
  • These are some pretty densely-packed lines, so let's take another step back to recap. The speaker's essentially saying "Just like kingfishers and dragonflies look like fire moving through the air, just like stones make a sound when they fall down a well, just like a string that's plucked, just like a bell that rings…"
  • Just like these things what? We still don't know yet. These lines have all just set up a pretty intricate simile, joining all these things together.
  • It's worth noting what they have in common here, at this point, though. They all leave some trace of themselves—to the eye or in the ear—as they do their thing.
  • We wonder if that's going to be important. Let's read on…

Lines 5-8

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 dó is me: for that I came.

  • Ah—at last all that set up in the first four lines has a payoff. Remember, those lines were comparing kingfishers, dragonflies, rocks, music strings, bells to…"each mortal thing" (5). Okay, so that's pretty broad. How is every living thing like the examples in lines 1-4?
  • Well, every living thing—like the kingfishers and all that other stuff—has one central function ("one thing and the same").
  • And what is that? We learn in line 6 that it's to fully express its very self. Specifically, every living thing "Deals out that being," which is to say that it expresses and projects its own inner self. We know that the speaker means this because he finishes line 6 with "indoors each one dwells." He's not talking about housing here; he's describing "being" in a more spiritual sense, that inner and essential sense that truly defines each mortal being as the thing that it is. To translate line 6, then, the speaker is saying how every living thing projects its inner self, that inner "being" which lives ("dwells") inside.
  • We're swimming in some pretty deep philosophical waters here, so another recap is in order.
  • To go back to the start of the poem, remember that the speaker is describing the way that a kingfisher, dragonfly, rock, musical string, or bell leaves its mark on the world (through the way it looks or the way it sounds to the rest of the world).
  • Mainly, those examples are inanimate objects or animals. Here, though, the speaker is saying that every living creature does the same thing, expressing its own inner essence into the world.
  • The speaker moves on in line 7, calling every thing's inner essence "Selves."
  • Every self, he says, has its own particular energy ("goes itself"). What's more, every self can speak for…itself. Thanks to some more personification, we hear each self say "myself" (the italics indicate that these words are spoken aloud).
  • The self does more than speak, though. It cries out, claiming that its actions are the expression of its true identity ("What I do is me") (8). After all, that's what the self is here (on Earth, in existence) to do ("for that I came") (8).
  • So, to sum all this up in a nice little simile, the speaker is saying that every living thing on Earth is just like an animal or object that projects a part of its inner essence into existence. After all, that's what being alive really means: projecting your true and undiluted nature into the world.
  • Whew—it took a long time to get here, but the simile is complete. You made it, Shmoopers—way to go.
  • But wait—before you spring off to the next stanza, we need to point out a few thing about this poem's form.
  • Notice any rhyming? How about some regular meter? If you did, give yourself a pat on the back—then head over to "Form and Meter" for more. That's where we'll chat about how (and why) this poem is put together. We'll also cover those weird apostrophes you see over "What" and "do" in line 8 (those are stress marks, but don't stress about them too much right now).

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