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...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

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