Themes and Meanings
Hopkins was extremely sensitive to natural beauty. In addition to his innate sensitivity, however, he also had theories on the place of natural beauty in God’s world. He thought that all individually beautiful things had within them a principle of growth by which they developed, which he called “instress,” a curve of stress that entered matter and transformed it into an individual creation. Therefore, the fire that “breaks” from the windhover is not actual flame but the impression made on the viewer when the instress that made the bird what it was suddenly flashes into the viewer’s mind. Since the instress is a formative stress, it then begins to shape the mind of the poet as it had shaped the bird. The instress then travels down the arm of the poet and enters the language of the poem, whence it flashes to the mind of the reader. The traveling of the instress is like the path of an electric current, from object to viewer to language to reader.
The instresses that form the physical universe are not, however, merely natural forces. For Hopkins, each of them represents the activity of Christ in the world, since Christ is the principle of the Incarnation, the entry of God into matter. So each time the instress of an object or a creature blazes into Hopkins’s head, he is also seeing the proof of the presence of God in the world.