Poems of my life. As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

5 Nov

I have written before of the influence of poetry. Not a day goes by without words and rhymes from days gone by forcing their way happily into my consciousness. There are a million triggers – and you would expect an old English teacher to have an extensive store of verses neatly mind-catalogued, cocked and ready to fire into action when the occasion demands. Yet so often it is the words that others put in front of me – or that I sought for myself – that spring into my head.

I first came across Gerard Manley Hopkins at school. An A level teacher, Brian Cope, wanted to introduce us to something beyond our ken; a poetic experience unlike any other. Hopkins wasn’t on the syllabus that year but, in 1968 with no Ofsted or league tables to worry about Copey tried to give his boys a it more of an education.

We struggled, quite honestly, not helped by our giggling immaturity. One or two poems survived our initial indifference  and Brian’s informed and quietly powerful readings stayed with me. Later at university, when a wonderful tutor, David Fussell, asked the group if any of us had tried Hopkins my hand raised itself and I found that I was reading sonnet 34. The first four lines have bounced into my head so regularly. The metaphors capturing kingfishers and dragonflies are just – exciting. Then the tough mouthfuls of sound and alliteration and scrambled syntax that cascade down the octet before the point: What I do is me. The defining actions of nature, the individuality, the uniqueness of all living things proves, for Hopkins, the divine. The sestet nails the argument For me, a  poor atheist being guided by the promptings of Dave Fussell, to tease out the excitement and fun of the language and form and enjoy Hopkins’s commitment to his God – it was a divine lesson and one that has stuck.

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 Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

 

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — 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.
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