A commentary on Hopkins’s poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Windhover’ was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) in 1877, but, like many of Hopkins’s poems, was not published until 1918, long after his death. It’s one of his most widely anthologised poems and some analysis of it may help readers to appreciate it as a curious and interesting example of the sonnet form. So, what follows is a very brief analysis of the poem, designed to act as a short introduction to its linguistic power and its themes.
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-vermilion.
A couple of things about the poem’s title and dedication: ‘windhover’ is another name for the kestrel, and the poem is dedicated ‘To Christ Our Lord’ (Hopkins was a Catholic – indeed, a Jesuit – and many of his poems are devotional or religious). ‘The Windhover’ is rightly praised as both a great nature poem (about the ‘mastery’ of the bird of prey in flight, as it ‘hovers’ on, and rides, the wind) and a great religious poem (the last six lines, along with the poem’s dedication, liken the majesty of the bird to the masterful power of Christ). Put briefly, the first eight lines of the poem are about the poet catching, one morning, the majestic sight of the windhover/kestrel in flight; the next three lines suggest that the kestrel’s flight is like the awesome power and grace of Christ (‘O my chevalier!’); and the final three lines, more sober and contemplative, reflect that we needn’t wonder that such a sublime thing exists in nature. After all, the plodding of the horse driving the plough makes the furrows in a ploughed field (‘plough-down sillion’ – ‘sillion’ is the poet’s own coinage) shine, and the lumps of coal in a fire (‘blue-bleak embers’) can break into new life, and glow a beautiful reddish-gold. Such ‘brute beauty’ is found everywhere in nature, in other words. But this paraphrase of Hopkins’s actual words is only designed to be a way into understanding what cannot adequately be paraphrased. The poem’s use of language is crucial to its success and effectiveness as a piece of poetry, so it’s worth highlighting a few things in the poem which are particularly interesting or noteworthy.
First, the poem is a sonnet – a poem usually of fourteen lines – and more specifically a Petrarchan sonnet that rhymes abba abba cdc dcd (Petrarchan sonnets almost always rhyme abba abba in the first eight lines, or the ‘octave’; the final six lines, or ‘sestet’, rhyme in various ways). We have more about the curious variability and versatility of the sonnet form here. However, this isn’t immediately obvious, because, unlike other sonnets which usually contain ten syllables per line (e.g. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?‘ or ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways‘), Hopkins’s poem is far more varied in its number of syllables per line. The first line actually does contain ten syllables, but the word ‘kingdom’ is cut in two, with the poem’s second line beginning mid-word. That second line contains sixteen syllables. This is because of Hopkins’s peculiar approach to poetic rhythm and metre, known as ‘sprung rhythm’. What is the point of sprung rhythm? Well, for one, it allows Hopkins to get closer to the rhythms of natural speech: indeed, one of Hopkins’s earliest champions, the critic F. R. Leavis, argued that Hopkins was the only English poet who rivalled Shakespeare for his poetic imitation of natural speech.
Second, to capture the awe the poet experiences when viewing the bird, his language is appropriately awe-inspired: so, for instance, he writes ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’ where the stuttering force of that comma, the exclamation mark, and the unusual use of ‘achieve’ as a noun (not ‘the achievement’, but ‘the achieve’), all convey his almost breathless excitement at witnessing the bird in flight. The sense of religious awe is a world away from Thomas Hardy’s bleak view of a godless world in ‘The Darkling Thrush’.
If there is one word we might use to describe Hopkins’s characteristic poetic style, it is ‘headlong’. The vibrancy of the sprung rhythm, and the unusual word-choices (‘achieve’, ‘sillion’), both seek to convey the awe the poet felt when he saw the windhover. In turn, we can marvel in awe at the sheer ‘mastery’ of language which Hopkins’s poem demonstrates. This short analysis can only go so far towards addressing this, but we hope we’ve provided an interesting introduction to Hopkins’s distinct style as it is displayed in this, one of his greatest poems.
We include ‘The Windhover’ in our pick of Hopkins’s best poems, so if you would like to discover more of his work, take a look at our list. We’d especially recommend ‘God’s Grandeur’ (which we’ve analysed here) and ‘Pied Beauty‘. More poetry analysis can be found in our summary of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’, and we have some general tips for the close reading of poetry here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.