The kingfisher, one of the most colorful birds in England, “catches fire” as the light brings its plumage to a bright radiance. Similarly, the iridescent wings of the dragonfly glint with a flame-like beauty. These two optical images are followed by three aural ones: the tinkling sound of pebbles tossed down wells, the plucking of strings on a musical instrument, and the ringing of bells as the “bow” swings like a pendulum to strike the metal side. Each of these objects does exactly what its nature dictates, in a kind of (unwilled) self-assertion. More generally, every “mortal thing” might be thought to do the same: to express that essence that dwells inside (“indoors”) of it. “Selves” (assumedly from the infinitive “to self,” or “to selve,”) is Hopkins’s coined verb for that self-enacting, and he elaborates upon this process in the lines that follow: to “self” is to go oneself, to speak and spell “myself,” to cry, “What I do is me: for that I came.”

The next stanza extends this concept from object to man. “Justices” (from the made-up infinitive “to justice”) becomes the verb for that which the just man does or enacts. He harbors a grace (bestowed by God) that reveals itself in all his “goings” or everyday activities. And he acts before God as the being that God sees him as, which is Christ, who is both man and God. Christ dwells everywhere—in bodies and in the expressions of human eyes. It is the beauty lent by Christ’s presence that makes “the features of men’s faces” lovely in God’s sight.


The poem is an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet: 14 lines divided into an octave and a sestet. Hopkins’s variations on straight iambic pentameter enhance the ideas the poem expresses, and the poem provides one of the best examples of his dexterous use of musical effects. For example, examine the third line: “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells.” While the line is neat iambic pentameter, the iambs fall in such a way that they split the words “tumbled,” “over,” and “roundy.” This splitting (which Hopkins called “counterpoint”) effects a regular, quick, and broken feel, and re-creates beautifully the reverberations of stones plunking down a well. The pattern by which the consonants and vowels are repeated and varied replicates the subtle but discernible change in pitch as pebbles of different shapes and sizes strike the water below. Contrastingly, the even accents in the phrase “each tucked string tells” issue forth in plucking regularity and sonorousness. In the poem as a whole, the disproportionately large number of accented words complements the conceptual emphasis on the “thisness,” or individuality, of each thing.


“As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame” offers perhaps the most direct illustration of Hopkins’s theory of “inscape.” The term is hard to define precisely—even Hopkins struggled to articulate it—and critics have carped at length over its exact meaning. Coined on the model of the word “landscape,” the term refers to the unifying designs by which the unique interior essences of a thing are held together. The word does not merely refer to what is particular and individual about an object, but posits a kind of inner order or pattern by which these individual essences form a kind of harmonious composition. Moreover, inscapes imply a creator; by paying close enough attention to observe inscapes, one might hope to be lifted to a closer contemplation of God. Hopkins often took the idea of inscape as a standard for the kind of order and beauty that poetry might hope to achieve. The rich density and careful patterning of his poems reflect, therefore, a theological belief in a world whose character is one of subtle and magnificent design.

As with many of Hopkins’s sonnets, this poem turns from a physical first part to a spiritual, moral, or theological second part. More specifically, the poem shifts its focus from being (the mere passive possession of essential, defining characteristics) to the more active notion of self-expression, and then to action itself. Hopkins first draws on the physical being of kingfishers, dragonflies, and stones: each aspect he describes is a part of the unchanging nature of the object. However, the sound of the bell moves us more into the realm of deliberate self-expression. Hopkins uses the word “tongue” to link the involuntary ringing to the conscious power of speech. The bell’s ringing is equivalent to a “fling[ing] out of its broad name,” because the sound is so unique to the bell that it defines the object the way a name defines a thing. All of the world’s objects possess and assert uniqueness in the way the bell does, Hopkins declares. And though the objects he has mentioned so far are all insensate or unconscious, he prepares us for the next stanza by extending the characteristic to “each mortal thing.” The use of “selves” as a verb is one of the most remarkable things about this poem; by making the noun “self” into an action word, Hopkins enacts his thematic shift from the idea of substance or essence to a phase of activity and purpose.

Now in the sestet Hopkins makes the promised extension from inanimate object to human being; yet the self-asserting that seemed such an inevitable process for the objects described in the octave takes on a different character when applied to man. The process is complicated for human beings, because human beings possess a moral capacity. Thus the enacting of the self cannot happen unconsciously or automatically; rather, it means becoming one’s highest self, or acting to the highest of one’s capacity. A man is not just, Hopkins asserts, until he behaves justly, or “justices.” Furthermore, the implication is that he is not fully a man unless he does so—that being just is part of the essence of man, insofar as the striving for moral perfection is part of his basic existence.

Hopkins then extends this concept to the theological idea of God’s immanence in the world, and the Christian belief that Christ dwells within the hearts of men. It is by the grace of God that humans are what they are; more specifically, it was through divine grace that Christ came to redeem men from sin. Hopkins therefore asks that men “keep grace.” This phrase describes the humble acceptance of God’s grace that is the first gesture of Christian life. This acceptance will lend grace to their everyday comings and goings, and will allow man to act “in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is”—that is, to become one with Christ and so fulfill the purpose of his being. Through Christ, this daily activity can become truth, and the loveliness of bodies and faces can correspond to a loveliness of soul in a perfect Christian inscape.