The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 552 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.