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First published: wr. 1877, pb. 1918, in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Now First Published, with Notes by Robert Bridges

Edition(s) used: “The Windhover,” in Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected with an introduction and notes by W. H. Gardner. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry

Core issue(s): Beauty; Jesus Christ; nature


The eldest of nine children of a well-to-do middle-class family, Gerard Manley Hopkins alienated family and friends when he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism under Cardinal John Henry Newman. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1868 and became a priest nine years later, serving in slum parishes before taking a post as a classics professor in Dublin. He studied music and painting and wrote poetry, almost none of which was published until several decades after his death. He shared his verse with his poet-friend Robert Bridges through a correspondence of many years. A breakdown shortly before his death may have resulted from the tension in his life, which he considered nearly unresolvable, between his wanting to be a poet and his striving for sanctity.

To understand Hopkins’s poetry, the reader must know something of his poetic theory. His three main concepts are found in the terms “inscape,” “instress,” and “sprung rhythm.” The first two terms are closely related. By “instress,” a term that Hopkins coined, is meant the principle of the physical uniqueness of an object (natural or artistic) that distinguishes it from all else that is, was, or shall be. The term is derived from haecceitas, as used by the Catholic philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), and is sometimes translated as “thisness.” Hopkins’s “inscape” may be defined as the outward manifestation of the interior integrity of a thing.

“Instress” is described in terms of energy: the force by which inscape is revealed. Instress is that which acts on the mind of the beholder in such a way as to allow the beholder to comprehend the inscape. It is, as Hopkins himself wrote, the energy by which “all things are upheld.”

“Sprung” (or abrupt) rhythm is a difficult concept that commentators have tried to make comprehensible, not always with success. It is measured by feet of one to four syllables in length, regularly, although for certain effects any number of unstressed syllables may be used. If there is but one syllable, it receives the stress. If there are more syllables, the stress is on the first and different sorts of feet will result. There are four possibilities: a monosyllable, accentual trochee, dactyl, and first paeon. In this respect, sprung rhythm differs from running rhythm because sprung rhythm may use rests, monosyllabic feet, and the first paeon, whereas running rhythm (if it is scanned from the first stress in a line) can be made up only of trochees and dactyls. “Sprung rhythm” is meant by Hopkins to convey emotionally charged speech.

Hopkins’s best use of sprung rhythm may be found in his famous sonnet “The Windhover.” The poem, named after a small hawk, a kestrel, known for hovering in the wind, is set in the morning, when the narrator first sights the bird. Hopkins names the winged creature by the more aristocratic term (which he significantly capitalizes) Falcon and calls it “daylight’s dauphin” to stress its royalty. The creature circles in air and, when it seems to come into conflict with the wind in a kind of crisis, experiences ecstasy in a movement resembling a skater’s figure eight, a movement combining hurl and glide. The bird’s control enables it to overcome the wind’s force, intelligence defeating physicality, as it were....

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This skill excites the narrator:

My heart in hiding . . .Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

The triumph over the blind force of nature is exhilarating. Thus the first eight lines of this sonnet come to a close. In the sestet, Hopkins summarizes the hawk’s attributes—its beauty, courage, and energy—all of which “buckle,” a deliberately ambiguous term suggesting both a collapse (or submission) and a fastening together. The poem closes with an acknowledgment of the almost dangerous beauty of the bird, which, in its violence, may reflect the ambiguity of the Crucifixion: violence culminating in salvation.

Christian Themes

“The Windhover” exemplifies much that is both spiritual and explicitly Christian in Hopkins’s work: that all reality is interconnected; that God, humanity, and the universe are inseparable; that each person and each object in the world is unique and glorifies God in its uniqueness; and that the revelation of individual uniqueness is found in the energy that each person or object emits.

The bird was one of Hopkins’s favorite images. In “The Windhover,” the hawk gives glory to God by being fully itself, but in the poem the image also suggests Christ as well as one who would use Christ as a model for life, probably the narrator of the poem. The bird is a Christlike image of self-sacrifice and in being true to itself is shown as part of the great unity of the cosmos. Everything is connected with everything, and the incorporating energy for this is signified in the concept of inscape, which reconciles the individuated creature with the rest of the universe.

The poet experimented in how exactly to present his thoughts and moods, frequently having to invent words (“wimpling,” “achieve” as a noun), unique verbal combinations (“gash gold-vermilion”), and hyphenations (“dapple-dawn-drawn”) and to revive words long out of use (sillion). Influenced by both Welsh and medieval verse traditions, Hopkins was determined to render meaning and feeling through his highly personalized view of poetic language.

The music of his poems was developed through use of alliteration, internal rhyme, and repeated syllables as well as words. The first two lines of “The Windhover” illustrate this:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

It has been noted by critics that the arrangement of Hopkins’s words is not based on that of ordinary speech but is rather for the effect of communicating meaning and tone. This tends to give a high energy level to his poetry when read aloud. It has further been said that the priest’s interest in painting contributed to his concern for beauty and the form that establishes it. This is reinforced by his attraction to John Duns Scotus’s philosophy, with its emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual person and object. It is not difficult, then, to see how Hopkins came to develop his theories of inscape and instress.

It should not be thought, however, that Hopkins wrote from a spiritually comfortable soul. His poetry often exhibited the tension he experienced between his religious faith and his poetic skills. His work reflects pain and joy, excitement and agonized interpretation. Critics have found that Hopkins, living in the era of Victorian literature in England, was separated from the literary and religious mainstream in England, and at least one critic has argued that the introverted nature of his poetry is in part a reflection of this. His poetry has also been seen as offering a kind of meeting place for orthodox Catholic theology and secular poetry—an inestimable feat, perhaps on the level of achievement in verse of what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin accomplished in science. The work of the Jesuit is clearly self-conscious; he appears continually to be asking questions such as “Who am I?” “What is the world?” “What is my place in the world?”

In spite of all of his inventiveness, Hopkins may have entrapped himself in forms; this is possibly why his later poems seem to lose the energy apparent in earlier ones. Personal illness may have contributed to a certain decline as well. One writer has considered Hopkins as self-victimized in a symbol of his own making, that of a restricted bird. Christianity is a religion of constant struggle for Hopkins, and his poetry clearly reflects his ongoing attempt to discover meaning in that struggle.

Sources for Further Study

  • Cutter, James Finn. Inscape. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973. Cutter still offers some of the best insights into the Christology and poetry of Hopkins.
  • Delli-Carpini, John. Prayer and Piety in the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Landscape of a Soul. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998. Addresses Hopkins’s spirituality by reading the poems as prayers, the outgrowth of his relationship with God.
  • Muller, Jill. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding. New York: Routledge, 2003. Places Hopkins and his beliefs in the context of his industrializing and securalizing, anti-Catholic social milieu. Sees Hopkins’s introversion as an expression of the larger deflation of Catholicism in Victorian England.
  • Roberts, Gerald. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. A concise (153-page) introductory guide to Hopkins’s poetry. Roberts maintains that Hopkins’s conversion to Catholicism matured his poetic style as well as his vision.
  • Ward, Bernadette Waterman. World as Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002. Explicates twenty-nine poems in an effort to understand Hopkins’s philosophical engagement with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other Christian mysteries, revealing his struggle to express moral as well as intellectual truth in an age of religious sentimentalism and burgeoning scientism.