The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

If I could write a poem 1/10th as fine as this one by Gerard Manley Hopkins, I would die happy.

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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)



A very quick summary explication of the poem – my take on it anyway. It can be a bit tricky to understand since Hopkins liked to use words for their sound as much as their sense and was not beyond making up words to fit a line (“sillion” meaning a ploughed furrow, for example, from the French “sillon”).

The first octet is about seeing a glorious kestrel (windhover) riding the morning air and “rebuff[ing] the big wind”. Watching its easy mastery of flight, the poet’s heart, that was “hidden” or depressed, is stirred.

In the first verse of the sextet, that stirring of heart then causes the worldly appearances that mask the glory of Christ to break (“buckle”); Christ’s “fire” then shines through into this heart. In other words, seeing the bird makes the poet look up, and in looking up sees beyond himself and the world into heavenly rapture. We know he’s talking about Christ because the poem is dedicated “to Christ our Lord” and the the poet uses this verse to directly address him — “the fire that breaks from thee … O my chevalier!”

The second verse of the sextet goes on to say that it’s no wonder that something as magnificent as the windhover should reveal a shining inner reality, because even something so humble as pushing a plough down a furrow makes the dull iron shine, and even dark embers falling and breaking open reveal a flash of intense light and colour. So why shouldn’t the poet also see Christ in “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin”?

Language and rhyme

This poem is a lesson in boldness in the use of language, rhyme and meter. He uses what’s known as “sprung” meter which counts beats in a line, but not syllables. He also uses accent marks (“shéer plód”) to make sure certain syllables receive emphasis.

He also finds necessary rhymes in the centre of phrases. So often you see budding poets ending each line in a phrase. The sign of a mature modern poet is running a phrase onto the next line. Hopkins even breaks a word to find a necessary rhyme in the very first line “king-/dom”. In fact, most of his lines break mid-phrase, with one or two exceptions. This gives a more natural language feeling to the poem.

Try reading it out loud – it’s superb to say the outrageous words he uses.  He loves alliteration, which adds a luxurious richness to the natural rhythms of the piece. It reads easily because of the sprung rhythm, but the choice of vocabulary makes it sing.


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