Inscapes: IV ‘As kingfishers catch fire’


The exultant finale of Inscapes, with antiphonal vocal fanfares that mount higher and higher.  A strong pulse gives great vitality to the movement, which, after a Copland-esque middle section, returns to the powerful opening material, culminating in a climactic fortissimo assertion of purposeful being: “What I do is me: for that I came.”


A licensed copy is required for each member performing.


Notes on the poem

This poem could be considered Hopkins’ manifesto, his own poetic definition of the concept of “inscape.”  Inspired by the early Oxford theologian Duns Scotus, who spoke of the “haecceitas” – the thisness of each creature, each thing – Hopkins coined his own term: “inscape.”  It is a complex term of multiple dimensions.

On one level, the inscape of any thing is its physical pattern of being.  Hopkins came from a family of artists, and although he chiefly developed his skill with words, his early training in physical observation is always evidenced in his poetry.  A number of his journal entries show him describing the inscape of various natural phenomena, like a group of clouds, or water flowing over rocks.  One senses that his groping to describe these patterns with as much precision as possible further honed his already keen sense of words.  Indeed, some portions of the journal entries are hardly distinguishable from his poetry.

Another level of the inscape of any thing is the revelation from within of its essential being.  These lines from ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ express this aspect of inscape:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

For Hopkins, this revelation of being was actually more of a verb than a noun: the selving of a thing – its movement in its own becoming.

Finally, there is the theological layer to the concept of inscape.  Here Hopkins’ identity as a mystic comes into full play.  The wonder he finds in the uniqueness of each creature points back to the hand of the Creator.   To quote Eleanor Ruggles, one of Hopkins’ foremost biographers, each creature’s inscape pertains to the “selfhood that it has from and in God.”  In Hopkins’ poetry, this perception is often accompanied with the image of fire, as in his well-known poem, “God’s Grandeur”: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil….”  Of course, images of fire leap off the page in the poem ‘As kingfishers catch fire’: kingfishers “catch fire,” dragonflies “draw flame.”  With Hopkins, one senses an image for God that is much more elemental and cosmic than any anthropomorphic Biblical imagery – an image of creative energy like the sun itself, burning with million-degree heat, spitting atoms across space – or the molten lava that leaps out of the darkness to make mountains.  In each creature, the shining power of God can be perceived, because each creature is an actual expression of God’s own being, a part of God’s own becoming.

Notes on the piece

This piece was first imagined with strong quarter-note drumbeats.  Even if it is sung a cappella, singers are encouraged to “feel” and “hear” the energy of these strong pulses in their bodies and minds.

Diction becomes something newly discovered with Hopkins – as if one has never really pronounced a consonant until one has recited a Hopkins poem.  For all his imagination and deep feeling, Hopkins is also a surface-conscious anatomist of words.  He was known to make long lists of words with related etymology, noting subtle migrations of consonants and vowel.  The reader feels with Hopkins that every word is “vetted” – each individual letter considered for its sonic contribution to the poem’s overall effect.  In ‘As kingfishers,’ the “f’s” leap out like flame.  The “ng’s,” “m’s” and “n’s” ring like bells.  The “k’s” are plucked like sharp pizzicatos.  Words should be uttered in this piece as if they are being newly created when they fly from one’s mouth.

This was the first movement of Inscapes to be conceived.  The opening phrase’s Lydian mode gives an exciting, unfolding instability to the harmonic language that sets the tone for the movement as a whole.  Melodic quotations from the first and third movements add (hopefully) to the sense of cohesion of the work.  While I considered including the poem’s final sestet in a fugue, I found that the first eight lines constituted plenty of material, and provided a magnificent lyric on which to end the piece: “What I do is me: for that I came.”

IV.  ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ (excerpt)

As kingfishers catch fire, as 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 its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

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SATB double choir

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