Hopkins’ “The Windhover”

My class has been studying the following poem, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I decided to write about it. 

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

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-vermillion.

A Summary:

In Hopkins’ “The Windhover,” the action is initiated the speaker of the poem sees a falcon gliding in the morning sky. The entire first stanza is dedicated to describing the falcon’s flight and the speaker’s ecstatic reaction. On the surface, the first stanza seems to be merely description of a bird’s morning flight.

In the second stanza, the action continues. The falcon dives. The poem says “here/ Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then a billion/ Times told lovlier.” Buckle! is a single verb, a command that mirrors the falcon’s movements as the bird pulls in it’s wings and falls. Upon first reading, this significant action is not readily apparent, but it becomes more so as the poem progresses. The second stanza also switches from the objective description of the falcon in the first stanza (“he rung upon the reign of a wimpling wing”) to direct address (“Oh, my chevalier”).

Finally, in the third stanza the speaker departs from the falcon and makes a wider statement about a spiritual principle. The observation is that when earthly things break, the result is light, fire, or beauty.

What I Think:

In Hopkins’ poem, the strength is derived from the power of the imagery. Hopkins is intent on making a spiritual principle manifest, but he does so not through direct exploration or theological treatise, but through the consistent presentation of images, specifically natural images. He first presents the inspiring picture of a falcon at flight in the morning, and describes it using specific poetic conventions like consonance and imagism. in the first and second line, he repeats the D sound to describe the falcon: “king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon.” He invokes the beauty of the bird through sensory language, so that readers are drawn into the ecstatic moment and can share (albeit indirectly) some of the speaker’s sensations. We don’t get to see the majestic flight, but we get to hear of it through beautiful language. Hopkins also brings in a myriad of comparative images like “rung upon the reign,” or “as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth.” These types of images will return in the third stanza when the speaker draws wider, spiritual conclusions from his experience.

Not only does Hopkins create vivid images through comparison with common, rural activities like reigning a horse and ice skating, but he also employs descriptive language to it’s full effect. He focuses on the relationship between the bird and the wind that carries it. In the third line he describes the atmosphere as the “rolling, level underneath-him steady air” so that it is not merely a passive medium through which the falcon moves, but an essential, if inanimate participant. The bird is the subject of the sentence, and Hopkins weaves in description of the environment, but manages to stay focused on the key player: the falcon. Later in the first stanza, he continues this idea by describing the bird’s flight as a “rebuff” to the “big wind.” The relationship between the bird and the air is almost antagonistic, but the bird is never a victim of his environment. He is beautiful because he adapts to it, integrates it into motion. The flight of the falcon is beautiful in itself, but it also gives body to and describes the character of the invisible air around it, so that the speaker is not only aware of a single bird, but a whole natural system.

The second stanza is unique among the three because it contains no direct imagery. It is something of a continuation of the speaker’s ecstatic state of mind from the first stanza’s “My heart in hiding stirred for a bird” but now we don’t have the speaker relating his feelings to us: instead, we are in the speaker’s mind now. The language bears witness to this stream of consciousness approach: “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here/ Buckle!” is hardly a standard descriptive sentence. It is also a slight departure from the steady rhythm of the rest of the poem.

The end of the second stanza and the third stanza together form the revelation of Hopkins’ poem. The fire that breaks from the diving bird is “a billion times told lovlier” than the birds earlier flight, and it prompts the speaker’s final remarks:

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

There are two images. The first is most difficult because of Hopkins’ vocabulary choice. A sillion is a furrow in a plowed field so “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine” describes the way a plow, by steadily pushing through the dirt of a field, becomes polished to a shine. The second image is easier to grasp: a dying ember, say the morning after a fire, will look dark and dead (“blue-bleak”) but if it falls and breaks, sparks will fly.

The second image of the third stanza is important because it echoes and re-interpretes the description of the falcon in the second stanza: “fire that breaks from thee then” is obviously the same idea as “gash gold-vermillion” and suddenly the reader can see that like the ember, the falcon is falling—becoming more beautiful and more dangerous.

At the end of the poem, then, the reader is left with a collection of images: a falcon flying, then buckling; a polished plough, and a broken ember. The task is then to re-assess the images and emerge with some sort of meaning (if indeed the poem is intended to do more than present some interesting, natural imagery). It is a safe assumption that there is more to the poem, however, because that is a prominent characteristic of Hopkin’s poetry in general and nature poetry in particular. As Hugh Kelly pointed out in 1956:

The assumption that The Windhover has no “explicitly religious significance” is a strange one to make by any one who has read Hopkins: because it is a fact that all his nature poems have a spiritual significance or lesson, which is not merely implicit or something to be deduced, but which is explicitly expressed. (190)

And he uses the perfect example of another Hopkins poem, “God’s Grandeur,” to back up his statement.

After a few readings, it easy easy to arrive at the same conclusion as Kelly about the meaning “The Windhover.” it is a portrait of Christ—the broken ember and the polished plow become clear symbols of Christ’s death and resurrection. What had been thought dead becomes light and life by being broken open. What one would have thought to become dirty and soiled underground emerges glorified.

So the ending of the poem is obviously a portrait of christ, what is buried and broken becomes life and light. The falcon is the expression of the atmosphere the way Christ image of the invisible godhead. It dives to earth as a picture of the incarnation, “a billion times told lovlier.” The ember breaks and the plow shines like the resurrection, “gashing gold-vermillion.”

No wonder of it.

Poetry does something that language in any other manifestation cannot do. I’ve read a lot, and I can’t read anything the same way that I have to read Hopkins. You should try it.

Work Cited:

Kelly, Hugh. “The Windover – And Christ.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review. 45 (1956): 188-193 . JSTOR. Web. 3 Nov. 2013. Link.


About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
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