I have no clear idea how to start talking about this book, other than it was a peculiar journey reading it. “As kingfishers catch fire” is a poetry collection by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian English poet and a Jesuit priest. Given this unusual combination, I first proceeded to find out more about the author.
He grew up in quite an artistically inclined and very religious Anglican family (his father was a poet himself and his mother was fond of music and reading) and he wrote his first poem when he was 10 years old. However, in his early twenties he entered the Roman Catholic Church and gave up poetry for seven years (burning his previous writings), believing that this creative undertaking prevented him from fully devoting himself to religion. Eventually he returned to it, including sacred elements or messages in many of his poems, but he continued to have an internal conflict between his religious commitment and his artistic writings, which lead him to the decision not to publish his poems. He died at only 44 of typhoid fever, his last words on his death bed being “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life”, although he suffered from isolation, depression and a spiritual distancing from God towards his final years.
Without claiming to be very knowledgeable when it comes to poetry, I am familiar with the well-known English writers, or so I thought … Gerard Manley Hopkins has definitely skipped my radar and I was rather surprised to find out how renowned he was. Once I’ve educated myself a bit on the author, I dived right into his work and … I hit a brick wall! I was reading words, I knew what (most of) the words meant, but I understood very little. At first I got really discouraged and almost decided not to go on with this. But then again, what was I expecting? To just casually browse through Victorian lyrics infused with subtle metaphors, archaic language, coined words and never-heard-of theories (by me)? That was highly unlikely, especially for someone who hadn’t read poetry since high school, a long time ago. So I changed my approach and patiently spent time on the poems, digging into what each of them meant. It was quite a slow process, but once I began to understand their meaning, I got more enthusiastic and started to actually enjoy most of them.
Religion is the recurrent theme in almost all of his poems. Regardless of whether he’s admiring a landscape, looking through a window, watching the sky, meditating on the nature of man or just observing a bird, he always links it all back to God. However, the ones that really spoke to me were the poems that focused more on the topics of death, depression and nature, these themes being extensively touched upon in his work. In order to better address them, I split the article in two parts, one focusing on the first two themes and exploring the poems “Spring and Fall”, “The Leadon Echo and The Golden Echo”, “I wake and feel” and “No worst” (PLBC – 02.2 – As kingfishers catch fire – Death and Depression). The second one is all about nature, covering the poems “As kingfishers catch fire”, “Binsey Poplars”, “God’s Grandeur” and “Inversnaid” (PLBC – 02.3 – As kingfishers catch fire – Nature).
I’ve definitely started off on the wrong foot with this author, but in the end, I really liked reading his poems and I was able to find some that overwhelmed me, others that saddened me, and a few that upset me. But overall, this book represented a great find for me, I’m happy I was able to discover Hopkins’s work and this has made me even more enthusiastic about the rest of the collection.