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 upright into the wind; the wind comes up against the feathers with a puffing sound: “the hurl and gliding/ Rebuffed the big wind.” In the seventh and eighth lines, the poet reports his exhilaration at the skill of the falcon: “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”
The action of the falcon reported in the ninth and tenth lines is not clear: “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride plume, here/ Buckle!” The word “buckle” is used to describe either an action of the bird or the excitement caused in the poet by a mental assessment of the talent of the bird—or possibly both. The bird may here be diving down onto his prey; falcons and hawks accomplish this action by folding their wings and falling, often at speeds exceeding one hundred miles an hour, onto the backs of their prey. Buckle could describe the sudden folding back of the wings at the beginning of the “stoop,” the technical term for the descent of the raptor onto its prey, a buckling as of a metal plate.
In the tenth and eleventh lines, the mental excitement in the viewer’s mind produced by the meditation on the ability of the falcon is described as fire: “and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/ Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” The reference in the word “thee” is ambiguous; it may refer to the falcon, but it may also refer to “Christ our Lord,” to whom the poem is dedicated. The fire would come from the bird’s actions, or possibly from the action of Christ incarnated in the bird. (If the reference was to Christ, however, and not the falcon, the word “thee” would have a...
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strong accent, by virtue of the rules of syntax—“and the fire that breaks from thee then”—and there is no special accent.)
The twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth lines contain a short meditation by the poet on the way even things much less impressive than a falcon can show “brilliance,” can excite sensitive viewers with their otherwise hidden abilities. A plow that has rusted in the barn for a whole winter can be scoured clean and shining merely by the action of plowing a furrow (a sillion is a furrow), and embers from a fire that seem to be entirely cold and dull can crack open and reveal a heart of glowing gold and red.
The poem rhymes like a sonnet: abba, abba, cdcdcd; however, the lines are not in iambic pentameter, the conventional meter for a sonnet. Instead of the orthodox ten syllables per line, there are in this poem lines from nine to fifteen syllables, so that instead of the normal 140 syllables in a sonnet, there are 177 in “The Windhover.”
Hopkins himself described the rhythm of the poem as “falling paeonicsprung and outriding.” A falling paeonic meter is ordered as strong-weak-weak-weak, but only eight falling paeonics can be identified in the poem (nine if one can count as a foot two stresses on one line and two on the next line). In fact, the identification of the rhythm of the poem as “sprung” provides an explanation of the irregularity of the poem; sprung rhythm adopts the rhythmic variety and flexibility of prose, and allows each poem to have a characteristic movement expressive of the individual occasion that gave it birth. It is therefore unlikely that any regular rhythm, orthodox or Hopkinsian, will be found in the poem.
In other respects, however, the poem resembles conventional sonnets. A Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, which is what “The Windhover” is as far as its rhyme scheme is concerned, is usually divided into an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. Hopkins follows this pattern in the poem’s organization.
The first eight lines describe the flight of the falcon in a generally objective fashion (except for the line “My heart in hiding/ Stirred for a bird”), and the last six lines launch into subjective generality as they describe the conclusion of the flight of the bird and conclude in a meditation on the whole experience.
There are many linguistic devices that add to the impressiveness and vividness of the poem. Hopkins uses syntactic ambiguity in the second and third lines to convey a feeling of level flight. The phrase “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” could mean two things: “dapple-dawn drawn Falcon”—the falcon is drawn to the dappled dawn, or “dapple dawn-drawn Falcon”—the dappled falcon is drawn to the dawn. The intonation of the phrase differs depending on which interpretation the reader gives the phrase. If the reader cannot decide which structure is correct, there is a tendency to pronounce the phrase as if it were a string of unconnected words: “dapple dawn drawn falcon,” which enforces an “unnatural” steadiness of intonation, which is exactly what the meaning requires—the steady flight of the bird.
Hopkins employs ambiguity of the same sort in the third line, in “rolling level underneath him steady air.” Is the phrase to be read as “rolling, level-underneath-him, steady air,” or as “rolling, level, underneath-him-steady air”? Again, the reader cannot resolve the ambiguity, and again an unnatural stiffness of intonation conveys the uncannily steady flight of the falcon.
Another aspect of the poem’s technique is the deliberate use of medieval military and governmental terms from French—minion (from mignon, “darling,” “favorite”), dauphin, valour, plume, chevalier, and vermilion. The military imagery could derive from Hopkins’s training as a Jesuit. The Society of Jesus, founded by a soldier, Ignatius Loyola, features much military imagery in its training of priests. Even the term “dangerous” has a medieval French overtone; in medieval French, daungier had the significance of “awe-striking” as well as its modern meaning.
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.