The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Summary of The Windhover
The Windhover was composed on 30 May 1877, the same year as ‘Pied Beauty,’ but did not get publication until 1918. Hopkins chance to notice a common kestrel, often known as Windhover due to its proclivity for hovering, when awakening early one morning. Hopkins was inspired to write a poem after being struck by the bird’s grandeur. However, as is customary with Hopkins, the creature serves as a vehicle for contemplating the creator’s majesty. Hopkins uses the subtitle To Christ, Our Lord to draw our attention to God’s greater magnificence.
‘The Windhover,’ like ‘Pied Beauty,’ extols the glory of creation. Whereas the first poem has a number of images, the second stanza contains only one image of a falcon or kestrel. However, Hopkins depicts this bird in both statis and kinesis, or in both a stationary and a moving stance. Petrarchan in style, the sonnet begins with a description of the bird in the octave and then compares it to Christ, the Lord’s, greater majesty in the sestet. Hopkins’ love for God is expressed through passionate phrases that climax in two striking images of self-effacement and self-sacrifice in the sestet’s final tercet.
‘The Windhover’ was regarded by Hopkins as the “best thing [he] ever wrote.” Hopkins eschews the ‘same and tame’ cadence of conventional poetry, which he refers to as Parnassian poetry, and writes in sprung rhythm, bringing his work to life. The poem, with its vivid and compressed pictures, its words bent from their contemporary meanings to accommodate antique ones, lends itself to multiple readings.
The narrative persona, ‘I,’ captures the image of a falcon in his eye/mind, who is the morning’s darling, the crown prince of the kingdom of daylight, who is deeply drawn to dappled dawn [early morning with streaks of red in the sky] as he soars through the air. He appears to be riding the thermal* [rolling air] by drawing his wimpling [folding] wings back, much like a horseback rider reins in his horse with a pull. And then, from his static posture, he swoops down gracefully, gliding like a skater on a rink, manoeuvring a curve and launching himself into the strong wind. The persona’s heart, concealed within him, desired to be like the bird, to master the elements like it does.
The bird that embodies brute beauty, bravery, and action by its air [behaviour], pride, plume [feather], and buckles [aligns itself with the larger beauty of God /or/ surrenders to the greater beauty of God]. The poet informs Christ, whom he addresses as chevalier, that the fire that bursts forth during this act of buckling is a million times more beautiful and dangerous. For Christ’s great sacrifice on the cross for all humanity is far more glorious than the terrestrial exploits of the hunting bird.
However, that is irrelevant. For it is by sheer labour that the ploughshare carried through the sillion [furrows in the farm] shines brilliantly. Alternatively, even the furrows glitter when the plough removes dull clods of earth and the new earth may gleam with minerals. And as ash-covered embers [blue-bleak] burst open, their smouldering fire [goldvermilion] core is revealed in the gash.
Critical Analysis of The Windhover
“The Windhover” was written in May 1877 by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had spent three years as a student at St Bueno’s Theological College, and this had been a fruitful time in his life. He deemed this brief poem worthy of reading and, in a corrected copy sent to his friend Robert Bridges, pronounced it to be the best poetry he had ever written. It was released about 30 years after he died, in 1918. He was an accomplished painter and poet. He abandoned all artistic endeavours for years as a Jesuit priest. However, he found little satisfaction in his ascetic lifestyle. He previously composed music for church services. He vividly depicts the flight of the falcon in the poem ‘The Windhover’ through his choice of words and usages.
Windhover is a bird that soars to great heights and encircles and glides after prey such as kites, hawks, and falcons. It could be seen as a representation of the soul/spirit, or as a representation of Jesus Christ, to whom the poem is dedicated. As a melancholy man, the poet sought peace in spirituality and specifically in Jesus Christ. He writes in this poem, “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle,” in an attempt to connect the spiritual and material worlds. Christ’s manly figure enables him to exhibit his strength, courage, and unadulterated enthusiasm in a secure manner.
The poet noticed a bird hawk hovering high in the air in search of prey. Jesus, too, is on the lookout for souls on this planet. The poet’s soul is one of those that he snatched. The poet expresses his admiration for the bird’s graceful flight. “In ecstasy!” exclaimed the bird. Then forth, off forward on swing, as the heel of a skate slides smoothly over a bow bend:” This is a photographic expression. He reveals his wit through his use of words and phrases. The phrase “brute beauty” alludes to the bird’s daring flight, while the word “buckle” alludes to the connection between spiritual and physical life.
His words “I am happy, I am so happy. I loved my life” tell his psyche. He employs simple imagery, philosophical allusions, and subtle but nuanced prosody. Through all of the poems, divinity reflects itself. He made use of ancient and dialect terms, as well as his own creations. Twindles is one such word (twines and dwindles combined), whereas “dappledawn-drawn falcon” is an adjective (The Windhover).
As Dennis Ward (1965) notes, “The mortal beauty of the falcon, the energy and valour and pride will be a billion times told lovelier when apprehended as the outward and visible sign of the creative force, God, which under the world’s splendour and wonder.”
Hopkins makes frequent use of alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and end and internal rhyme. We see the use of “ing” to terminate lines in the first stanza. For instance, king, riding, striding, wing swinging, gliding, and hiding. The employment of “morning’s minions” and “kingdoms of daylight” ornaments such as the dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, and so forth incorporates the various aesthetic ornaments discussed above.
Hopkins symbolically connects (buckles) this world and the other world in the framework of an Octave and Sestet sonnet pattern with sprung rhythm. In his life, Jesus Christ brings him comfort. Hopkins teaches us through this word painting of a bird’s flight that Nature may bring us delight, just as the bird he suddenly encountered brought him joy.
I. A. Richards, a prominent critic, initiated the debate over this sonnet. Nevertheless, no commentator, from the earliest critiques to the most current interpretations, appears to have examined the poem as a spectator. The majority of commenters appear to have studied the kestrel’s or windhover’s wing beating, hovering, gliding, swooping, and recovery, which cannot be accomplished within a dictionary, a Cambridge College, or a religious seminary.
We should note that the first eight lines contain a buzzing rhyme about its own report, its own excellence, God’s reputation, and God’s perfection. Furthermore, it describes the kestrel’s characteristic tense ringing resonance. As Hopkins stated of each corporeal item in the sonnet, it speaks and letters itself—”As kingfishers catch fire.”
Nonetheless, the kestrel represented a bit of God’s mundane majesty. Though perilous, it was a delightful gift from heaven. As with the sheer plod of ploughing, the steel mould-board or beast of the plough shines from the turned earth along the long strips of land (sillions), just as embers that have turned blue-bleak reveal the heat and colour within them as their dull surface slips away. He considers, in his address to Christ, the arduous slog of his own nine years, as it would soon be, of protracted preparation; of his own natural vocation since he chose to join the Jesuit Order. The relentless plod shines a light on the plough that is himself; his harsh asceticism and mental tiredness reduce him to barren embers that gall and gash themselves to gold Vermillion—which are, in fact, the ashes of his previous poem.
This is the kind of intertwining of subtleties, complexity, force, and fire that Hopkins is capable of conveying through his passionate science’s “inscapes.” Of course, his poetry can be read on a variety of levels—for its euphoric and precise capture of natural occurrences in the net of language—for its constructions of tremendous intensity that so pleasantly elicit one’s response.
Questions and Answers
1. Among the poem’s themes is the smooth merging of the windhover with the air. What literary devices does Hopkins employ to have his language appear equally smooth and fluid?
Answer: Hopkins’ poem uses alliteration, consonance, and assonance to create a fluid stream of words and thoughts. He also uses parallelism and unusual syntax to make his words seem almost melodic.
2. “The Windhover” is written with a meter in which the number of accents in a line is counted, but not the number of syllables. What is the term for this type of meter?
Answer: This type of meter is called sprung rhythm.
3. The poem is a fourteen-line sonnet, consisting of an octave and two tercets. The subject matter of the poem switches after the octave from the windhover to the speaker’s chevalier, a medieval image of Christ on a horse. How are the two subjects linked by the speaker?
Answer: The speaker links the two subjects by the mention of his heart. Witnessing the bird hovering in the air sets his heart-stirring, which is similar to the feeling that thoughts of Christ have on him.
4. What is the speaker referring to when he says in line ten, “ – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”?
Answer: The speaker is referring to the Falcon, which is flying above the speaker through the morning air.
5. Record briefly the images that suggest the majesty and grandeur of the Windhover.
Answer: The sight of the kestrel in the mid air, which is majestic like the dauphin, rides like an accomplished horseman, which shows tremendous mastery of movement and fights the big wind, like a cavalier. Then it swoops down in a majestic sweeping motion, showing its mastery over the air.
6. How does the poet establish the supremacy of Christ over the kestrel?
Answer: Kestrel is a majestic bird. In stasis and movement, it shows its majesty and command. The creature is magnificent indeed. But the beauty of the creator is a million times told lovelier. The kestrel is a bird of prey, a raptor, hence dangerous. In its bright plumage, in its command of the situation, in its haughty demeanour, it wins the hearts of the onlookers, who aspire to be like it. But the beauty of Christ is multi-fold, when compared to the kestrel. Christ, who died on the cross, comes across as more dangerous and lovelier through his sacrifice for the whole of mankind. His bravery is one of a kind. Not the physical bravery of the bird, but spiritual bravery, which wins over the soul. If the bird is like a cavalier soldier, fighting the wind, Christ is the chevalier of human hearts.
7. Do you think that the sonnet form has helped Hopkins to convey his ideas better?
Answer: The sonnet form of the poem is the perfect vehicle for thoughts. The poet is able to convey ideas and paint word pictures in a condensed manner. The structural virtuosity of the Petrarchan mode with its octave and the sestet, works perfectly to convey the images of the Windhover and Christ. The movement from the kestrel to Christ is beautifully executed, with the Volta coming in the sestet. The tercets in the sestet too balance the image of Christ with the two metaphorical images revelatory of his sacrifice.