Kingbird Don’t Care

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) - geograph.org.uk - 1366060
One day, Fr. Gerard had a moment with a bird. It was a sunlit morning when he saw a kestrel hover magnificently in the wind as a knight rides a horse.

And being Hopkins, he wrote a poem about it:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

He thought, and I tend to agree with him, that this was one of his best poems. Commenting on it in a letter, he wrote, ‘I think, but as that is the best thing I ever wrote I should like you to have it in its best form.’

Then E. E. Cummings (yeah capitals and periods. Deal with it) comes along and acts as though he read about those moments and then took up his pen and wrote the equivalent of: “Oh you’re stirred for a bird are you? Well kingbird don’t care”:

Scrapper the Kingbird, Redeye the Vireofor any ruffian of the sky
your kingbird doesn’t give a damn-
his royal warcry is I AM
and he’s the soul of chivalry

in terror of whose furious beak
(as sweetly singing creatures know)
cringes the hugest heartless hawk
and veers the vast most crafty crow

your kingbird doesn’t give a damn
for murderers of high estate
whose mongrel creed is Might Makes Right
-his royal warcry is I AM

true to his mate his chicks his friends
he loves because he cannot fear
(you see it in the way he stand
and looks and leaps upon the air)

Maybe this kingbird is still Hopkins’s “chevalier” since “he’s the soul of chivalry.” Likewise, there’s a strange conflation between Christ and bird since Cummings’s bird is “I AM” and Hopkins’s poem is dedicated to Christ and we’ve never really decided whether that “chevalier” is the bird or the “Christ the Lord” of the dedication.

Though different species, the kingbird itself seems to be a tongue-in-cheek version of the kingfisher in Hopkins’s poem “When Kingfisher Catch Fire.” While the kingbird constantly cries its own inscrutable presence, the kingfisher

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.

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

The natural selving of animals and things in Hopkins is taken up and reversed by the deified selving of the kingbird. Hopkins reserves divinization for the human person who “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is,” but Cummings takes the divine name of Exodus and the cryptic response of Christ in John’s account of the arrest in Gethsemane and gives it to a bird who “doesn’t give a damn.”

Whereas a lovelier fire bursts from Hopkins’s descending bird, Cumming’s ascending bird reveals fearless love in the way it “looks and leaps upon the air.”

It is as though Cummings notes that Hopkins’s “heart in hiding” was “stirred for a bird” and then muses whether the bird could possibly care about the wan Jesuit watching from below.

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5 thoughts on “Kingbird Don’t Care

  1. I agree that The Windhover is one of Hopkins’ finest poems. He pushes language about as far as it can go before it becomes…
    Cummings poem is wonderful and a fine argument but Windhover is more than an argument, it is eucharistic, a participation in the thing itself.

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