Gerard Manley Hopkins himself thought that “The Windhover” was his best poem, and generations of readers have agreed with him. The poem, composed on May 30, 1877, contains the account of the flight of a falcon, as observed by the poet in North Wales as he attended religious studies at St. Beuno’s seminary. The poem ends with a meditation on the activity of God in the world, as evidenced by the activity of the bird.
A windhover is better known as a kestrel, a type of falcon. The octave of the sonnet, the first eight lines, describes the flight of the windhover and its great skill in riding the currents of air. The narrator of the poem catches sight of the falcon at dawn, as the bird hovers and swoops in its hunt for prey. The different maneuvers of the bird in its flight are vividly described.
The first three lines describe the falcon’s uncannily steady flight forward: “his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air.” The fourth line describes how the falcon pivots around from his forward flight: “how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing.” To ring upon the rein is a term from horse training: A young horse has a long rope attached to his bridle, and the trainer makes the horse trot around him in a large circle. In exactly this manner does the falcon swing around from his level flight forward to sweep into a circle. “Wimpling” means that his wings, to perform this maneuver, swing up into a curve that is like the wimple on a nun’s headdress.
In the fifth line, the falcon suddenly swings around in the opposite direction. The poet compares the swing to a skater’s motion in skating around the curve on a frozen river, “a bow-bend.” The sixth and seventh lines describe the falcon coming...
(The entire section is 719 words.)