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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1248

Dedicated “To Christ Our Lord,” this sonnet in the Italian form was composed in 1877. While diction, image, and metaphor are central technical elements in the poem’s success and meaning, “The Windhover” nicely illustrates Hopkins’s more radical experiments with meter and sound.

In the octave, the poet says that while...

(The entire section contains 1248 words.)

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Dedicated “To Christ Our Lord,” this sonnet in the Italian form was composed in 1877. While diction, image, and metaphor are central technical elements in the poem’s success and meaning, “The Windhover” nicely illustrates Hopkins’s more radical experiments with meter and sound.

In the octave, the poet says that while walking in the morning he saw and admired a falcon in its flight. In the first three lines of the sestet, he recounts a visionary experience, his narration shifting into present tense. The vision comes upon him as he watches the bird dive in pursuit of its prey, and several levels of meaning “burst” forth from this motion. The vision begins with the word “buckle.” When the bird buckles, it collapses, pulling back its wings for a swift, controlled descent. Yet this verb also means to put on armor, to prepare for action as in a battle, and it also means to fasten together, as in buckling the ends of a belt. Furthermore, collapse can mean at least two things, the drawing in of the bird as it dives or the folding up of one who experiences pain or momentary weakness. These are only a few of the many interesting meanings critics have found in nineteenth century uses of this word.

Fire bursts forth from the bird when it dives, and this fire makes the bird “a billion/ Times told lovelier, more dangerous.” This vision leads the poet to address the bird: “Oh my chevalier!” A chevalier is a knight, one who serves a king in battle and who is often represented as rescuing the weak and oppressed from evils both natural and supernatural. One key suggestion of the knight image is the idea of putting on armor to enter into a battle. This image connects with the divinity to whom the poem is addressed, Christ. The knight putting on his armor is parallel to Christ’s incarnation, the son of God entering a physical body to become Jesus, thereby entering the world to do battle with human sin.

This suggestion of incarnation is one way in which God descends to human beings and in which God is like the falcon that descends to grasp its prey, except that God’s intention is benevolent. For this reason, among others, the falcon’s dive may be seen as a billion times lovelier, but why a billion times more dangerous? Perhaps the poet there reflects upon the human experience of grace. Trapped in sin as humans are, in the smudged world of “God’s Grandeur,” they are unlikely to welcome the radical changes that God’s “dive” requires of them. This negative aspect of grace is reflected in another descent suggested by the bird’s dive, the descent into the grave, by which Christ’s incarnation is completed as he shares death with humankind and by means of which Christ’s “prey” is figuratively snatched up from the earth, as Christ makes possible the human ascent into heaven that completes the act of divine grace. Just as the bird will rise after its dive, so Christ arose after his death, and humans who accept this graciousness may rise after their deaths.

In the last three lines of the poem, the poet asserts almost humorously that his vision really is not a wonder. After all, a mere plow shines as a result of its plowing the earth, and almost burnt coals, when they fall and break, flash forth red-gold fire. While he may appear to retreat from the intensity of the vision of the diving bird, he cannot really reduce his own or the reader’s impression of the profundity of that vision. Though he chooses an ordinary plow as his next image of comparison, that image evokes the idea of a descent into the earth in order to prepare a new resurrection, and its shining evokes the fire that broke from the windhover. When he turns to the burnt coals, he cannot avoid an exclamation of affection—“ah, my dear”—addressed to the bird and to Christ as they reveal themselves in the coals. In breaking to reveal flames within, they remind him of the breaking of Jesus’ body on the cross, the fall that sent forth the gleams of resurrection and Pentecost.

When Hopkins composed “The Windhover,” he had been thinking about altering the rhythmic patterns of contemporary poetry. In Old English poetry he noticed metrical arrangements that he came to call “sprung rhythm.” Much of the poetry written before Hopkins in modern English made use of fairly strict syllable counts to determine basic poetic forms. For example, a sonnet would contain as close as possible to 140 syllables, fourteen lines of ten syllables each, and the rhythm of each line would be made of five iambic feet (iambic pentameter), as can be illustrated in the first line of this poem: “I caúght this mórning mórning’s mínion, kíng-” (the accented syllables are marked). Though it does not make grammatical sense presented this way, this line shows the pattern of iambic pentameter, five pairs of syllables, the first in each pair unaccented, the second in each pair accented. In “The Windhover,” there are no more line that follow strict iambic pentameter so closely. Yet a carefully studied and prepared oral reading will reveal that each line has five heavily accented syllables. For the main rhythmic pattern of Hopkins’s poem, unaccented syllables are not counted, though how they are accented is important to preparing a performance of the poem. Sometimes, as in line 12, Hopkins marked some syllables he intended to have accented; otherwise, the reader must make judgments about which five syllables should receive the major accents in reading. The result of careful thought and analysis, however, is usually an exciting and provocative performance of the poem.

That Hopkins gave so much attention to his rhythm and that he modified, without abandoning, the basic sonnet form underscores the degree to which he thought of his poems as intended for oral performance. When one studies the poem, it becomes clear that one of the many functions of Hopkins’s frequent alliteration, especially the repetition of consonant sounds, is to control or at least suggest where accents should fall within the lines.

It is sometimes difficult to believe that a poet would give so much attention to what might seem the minor aspects of a poem, such as its rhythm and sounds. Yet even if one did not have the evidence of his correspondence, the sheer quantity of alliteration and the stress marks in this poem would indicate that Hopkins must have thought about these things. Hopkins not only thought deeply about how he would organize the sound and rhythm in his poems but also worked to integrate those aspects with the overall meaning and experience he hoped to convey. This effort can be seen, for example, in the opening of the poem, where no line has an end-stop—a final punctuation mark—until the exclamation point after “ecstasy.” To perform this opening is to realize that it is designed to make speaker and listener feel breathless and, thereby, to convey the wonder of seeing and of almost feeling the flight of the windhover. That this breathless line ends in ecstasy suggests even deeper thought in Hopkins, whether intuitive or conscious, which may have whispered to him that, in a poem about a visionary experience, a good first place to pause is on the word “ecstasy.”

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