Little Black Books: 2. ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ 

This is the second in the series of sundry reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.

This week I read a collection of 31 poems and some journal extracts by Gerard Manley Hopkins. According to Penguin this is a collection “ranging from the ecstasy of ‘The Windhover’ and ‘Pied Beauty’ to the heart-wrenching despair of the ‘sonnets of desolation’.” 

There is certainly range in this collection, and I used this week to brush up on my knowledge of Manley Hopkins’ use of the sonnet (using Stephen Regan’s fantastic, comprehensive book The Sonnet and this article p28ff). 

As background, I found Regan’s explanation of Manley Hopkins’ sonnet-writing career interesting:

“There are three main phases of sonnet-writing in Hopkins’s poetic career. The earliest is confined to a single year, 1865, when Hopkins is preparing to enter the Catholic Church. It includes some soul-searching devotional sonnets, such as ‘Myself unholy’, ‘Let me be to Thee’, and ‘See how Spring opens’. 

The second phase, 1877 to 1879, coincides with Hopkins’s final year at St Beuno’s in Wales (1877 was the year he was ordained) and his brief return to Oxford as curate at the church of St Aloysius. This middle phase includes some of his most innovative and exuberant sonnets, including ‘God’s Grandeur’, ‘The Starlight Night’, ‘The Sea and the Skylark’, ‘The Windhover’, and ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’. It is also the phase during which Hopkins composes his remarkable curtal-sonnets, ‘Pied Beauty’ and ‘Peace’. 

The third and final phase is that of the late 188os, when Hopkins is living in Dublin. It includes the so-called ‘sonnets of desolation’ or ‘terrible sonnets’, probably composed in 1885, as well as some ‘extended’ sonnets, such as ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, ‘Tom’s Garland’, and ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire’.”

 Stephen Regan, ‘The Victorian Sonnet, from George Meredith to Gerard Manley Hopkins’, read here 23/4/2022: 29-30. For commentary on ‘The Windhover’ see 31-2.

Manley Hopkins is largely new to me, and I enjoyed some great poetry from all three phases in this collection. I was struck, for instance, by the powerful sentiment in the opening of ‘No Worst’:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

The imagery, again and again overlaid with assonance and alliteration and propelled by the sprung rhythm (for an explanation, see below), is often stunningly vivid. As Regan says “Hopkins is preoccupied with intensification, and with the discipline and dynamism of the sonnet’s constituent parts” (Regan, ‘The Victorian Sonnet’: 29). An obvious example is the first line of the titular poem: “as kingfishers catch fire dragonflies draw flame”. This describes the ‘fire’ of the evening light flashing off a kingfisher’s, and a dragonfly’s, wings. 

I’ll pick out one sonnet, to finish, ‘The Candle Indoors’:

Some candle clear burns somewhere I come by.
I muse at how its being puts blissful back
With yellowy moisture mild night’s blear-all black,
Or to-fro tender trambeams truckle at the eye.
By that window what task what fingers ply,
I plod wondering, a-wanting, just for lack
Of answer the eagerer a-wanting Jessy or Jack
There God to aggrándise, God to glorify.—

Come you indoors, come home; your fading fire
Mend first and vital candle in close heart’s vault:
You there are master, do your own desire;
What hinders? Are you beam-blind, yet to a fault
In a neighbour deft-handed? Are you that liar
And, cast by conscience out, spendsavour salt?

In summary, the octet describes someone walking at night past a window lit by a candle. They wonder what is going on in there, “what task what fingers ply”. In the sestet the walker then comes (or seeks to come) inside, either physically or (metaphorically) spiritually (two slightly different interpretations here and here).

Like many of the Manley Hopkins poetry I read in this collection, ‘The Candle Indoors’ makes sense to start with, and then drifts off into the spiritual distance. T S Eliot wrote that ‘great poetry communicates before it is understood’ and it is no bad thing that these poems resist your understanding, because they always convey a clear emotion. For instance consider “Tender trambeams truckle at the eye”. The words together don’t immediately make sense (what does it mean to ‘truckle at’ something?), and yet clearly it is describing the beams of candlelight tracking through the gloom and across the walker’s eyes.

There is a limit though. I have no idea what the final lines (“Are you that liar/ And […] spendsaver salt?”) mean! Any comments to enlighten me are welcome.

Thanks for reading, see you next week!

NB: Regan gives the clearest explanation of sprung rhythm I have found: “Where Hopkins makes a radical departure from convention is in greatly lengthening the number of syllables per line, while tending to retain the usual five stresses associated with iambic pentameter. The resulting large number of unstressed syllables creates a highly energetic and syncopated sprung rhythm” (Regan, ‘The Victorian Sonnet’: 31-2).

NB2: Please see the Little Black Book page for the next post in the series. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close