The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The poem, The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a sonnet in sprung rhythm. It was Hopkins’s favourite poem and he called it “the best thing I ever wrote”. The sub-title of the poem, “To Christ Our Lord” is significant, because it provides a clue to the phrase “my chevalier” which applies as much to Christ as to the windhover. The windhover is a kid of hawk of falcon. The bird is so called because he has a tendency to hover in the wind.

Though another sonnet, titled The Caged Skylark, which was written during the same year, centres around the bird already made famous by the odes of Wordsworth and Shelley, the poem, The Windhover has, in fact, raised to a position of rival prominence a bird scarcely mentioned by previous poets. The volume of commentary which this sonnet has produced is evidence of its continuing fascination.

 

The Windhover Analysis

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!

In the poem, The Windhover, the poet has caught sight of the falcon who is described as morning’s favourite bird, and as the dauphin or crown prince of the kingdom of daylight. The falcon is drawn from his resting place or abode by the dapple-coloured dawn. The poet sees the bird as best-riding the air beneath him like a skilful horseman controlling his horse. The air is at once rolling and yet level and   steady beneath the bird, as he rides high and erect like a horseman in the saddle.

The bird circles in the air, as though controlling his movement in the wind after the manner of a trainer “ringing on the rein” of a wild horse. The bird pivots round on the tip of his extended  wing, which is described as “wimpling”, that is, rippling like a nun’s wimple in movement. At this moment of conflict with the pressure of the wind, the bird feels an ecstasy, and sweeps off in the  direction of the wind as though on a swing. This movment of the bird also reminds the poet of a skilful skater, sweeping round smoothly “on a bow-bend”, that is, while cutting a figure of eight on the ice.

The movement combines “hurl” or strong self-propulsion, with “gliding” or full utilization of the wind’s force. The skill of the bird thus seems to rebuff the wind, that is, to win a triumph over the wind. This triumph of the mind over matter inwardly stirs the heart of the poet “in hiding”.

The words “In hiding” may refer to the poet’s timidity or it may refer to the heart’s being hidden with Christ in God and thus leading a hidden religious life. The poet’s heart is thrilled with admiration for the bird-for the bird’s achievement in triumphing over the inanimate forces of Nature. The “heart in hiding” may also refer to the fact that the poet watches the bird from some hidden place, or to the fact that  the  heart is hidden within the body. Moreover the  words “here buckle” mean that the various qualities mentioned by the poet combine or fuse together in the falcon. “Here” = in the bird. “Buckle” = combine together. But there is another meaning also of “Here buckle”. The “heart in hiding” is being urged to make a complete surrender of itself to Christ.

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.

The poet, through the above lines, sums up the qualities of the falcon-brute, beauty, valour, “act”, pride, plume. All these qualities combine together in the falcon. The poet tells his heart to surrender itself completely to Christ. Through such a self-surrender the poet would see splendour in the falcon which is a billion times lovelier than is visible at a superficial view. The spiritual fire which the poet would behold is a billion times lovelier than the “brute beauty” of the falcon, and yet “more dangerous” also as it would make the poet a more devoted servant of Christ—because service has its hazards as well as rewards. There is nothing surprising in all this, the poet says and goes on to give us two examples from common experience:

  • There mere plodding of ploughman as he pushes his plough down the “sillion” or furrow produces a brightness on his ploughshare. In the same way, fidelity in religious life (just as Christ compared the religious life to taking up the plough) produces brightness in the soul.\
  • The embers of a fire may appear to be dying; they may look bleak in their faded blue colour; but it is precisely then that these embers fall and bruise themselves, so that they break open and reveal a hidden fire of “gold vermilion”. The poet’s soul, too, is “blue-bleak” or seemingly lifeless. But through suffering and mortification for the sake of Christ, the poet would experience a spiritual glory

 

Imagery in The Windhover

Such was the close-knit character of Hopkin’s sensibility that the imagery in many of his poems is recurrent. A relatively small number of themes and images permits him an extremely varied range of treatment. The full impact of The Windhover can be felt only if we are conversant with the imagery employed in some of his other poems. For example; the paradox of “sheer plod makes plough down sillion/shine is brightly illuminated in the poem. That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire. Contemplating his “joyless days, dejection”, “flesh fade, and mortal trash”, he reflects that: “This Jack, Joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond is immortal diamond.”

This “Jack, joke” plodding behind the plough makes the trash and mud of earth shine like a diamond, “Waiting him out of it”. A diamond flashing from the silicates of the soil is also, once again, the mirror of Christ in the hidden and humble heart of mortal clay.

Another aspect of this analogy of the plough grinding through the gritty soil is seen in the last line of Splet from Sybil’s Leaves:

Where, selfwrung, sefstrung, sheathe-and-shelterless, thoughts agains thoughts in groans grind.

This aspect of the plough and the soil is the more obviously dramatic one-immortal beauty won from the harshest dullest toil, suffering, and discipline.

The Windhover is such a richly complex poem precisely because all its themes had been explored by Hopkins in other poems. The range of the experience and multiplicity of integrated perceptions to be found here are not commonly met with in poetry.

Besides, the sonnet, The Windhover, has also been presented in the sprung rhythm. There are five stresses per lines, but with extra-metrical or outriding feet.

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