What is Hopkins's concept of inscape, and how can it be seen in his poem "The Windhover"?

Hopkins's concept of inscape states that each thing has a unified complex of characteristics that make it what it is. In gleaning the inscape of a thing, we see why God created it. In "The Windhover," Hopkins tries to capture the inscape of the bird and its remarkable beauty in flight. By extension, he shows us the beauty of Christ our Lord, to whom the poem is dedicated.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hopkins's theory of inscape can seem quite complex and forbidding, which isn't surprising given that it was inspired by an equally, if not more complex, theory put forward by the medieval theologian and philosopher Duns Scotus.

However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that what Hopkins is getting at is the notion that every living thing has a unique set of characteristics that make it what it is. Simply put, the inscape is the essence of the thing.

In “The Windhover,” Hopkins tries to capture the essence of the kestrel in flight. He does so by using breathless language that conveys the sheer awe and wonder that the speaker experiences when he observes the bird's remarkable beauty as it cuts, soars, and dives through the air:

My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

But of course, “The Windhover” is not primarily about a bird. Though the kestrel may be beautiful, and its beauty undoubtedly constitutes its inscape, it is not more beautiful than Christ our Lord, to whom the poem is dedicated. Beauty is also Christ's inscape, his essence, but the fire of his beauty is “a billion / Times told lovelier.”

Both the bird and Christ are beautiful; in both cases, their beauty is their inscape, their very essence. But Christ's beauty is on a much higher level.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team