Themes and Meanings

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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.

Christian Themes

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“The Windhover” exemplifies much that is both spiritual and explicitly Christian in Hopkins’s work: that all reality is interconnected; that God, humanity, and the universe are inseparable; that each person and each object in the world is unique and glorifies God in its uniqueness; and that the revelation of individual uniqueness is found in the energy that each person or object emits.

The bird was one of Hopkins’s favorite images. In “The Windhover,” the hawk gives glory to God by being fully itself, but in the poem the image also suggests Christ as well as one who would use Christ as a model for life, probably the narrator of the poem. The bird is a Christlike image of self-sacrifice and in being true to itself is shown as part of the great unity of the cosmos. Everything is connected with everything, and the incorporating energy for this is signified in the concept of inscape, which reconciles the individuated creature with the rest of the universe.

The poet experimented in how exactly to present his thoughts and moods, frequently having to invent words (“wimpling,” “achieve” as a noun), unique verbal combinations (“gash gold-vermilion”), and hyphenations (“dapple-dawn-drawn”) and to revive words long out of use (sillion). Influenced by both Welsh and medieval verse traditions, Hopkins was determined to render meaning and feeling through his highly personalized view of poetic language.

The music of his poems was developed through use of alliteration, internal rhyme, and repeated syllables as well as words. The first two lines of “The Windhover” illustrate this:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

It has been noted by critics that the arrangement of Hopkins’s words is not based on that of ordinary speech but is rather for the effect of communicating meaning and tone. This tends to give a high energy level to his poetry when read aloud. It has further been said that the priest’s interest in painting contributed to his concern for beauty and the form that establishes it. This is reinforced by his attraction to John Duns Scotus’s philosophy, with its emphasis on the uniqueness of each...

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individual person and object. It is not difficult, then, to see how Hopkins came to develop his theories of inscape and instress.

It should not be thought, however, that Hopkins wrote from a spiritually comfortable soul. His poetry often exhibited the tension he experienced between his religious faith and his poetic skills. His work reflects pain and joy, excitement and agonized interpretation. Critics have found that Hopkins, living in the era of Victorian literature in England, was separated from the literary and religious mainstream in England, and at least one critic has argued that the introverted nature of his poetry is in part a reflection of this. His poetry has also been seen as offering a kind of meeting place for orthodox Catholic theology and secular poetry—an inestimable feat, perhaps on the level of achievement in verse of what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin accomplished in science. The work of the Jesuit is clearly self-conscious; he appears continually to be asking questions such as “Who am I?” “What is the world?” “What is my place in the world?”

In spite of all of his inventiveness, Hopkins may have entrapped himself in forms; this is possibly why his later poems seem to lose the energy apparent in earlier ones. Personal illness may have contributed to a certain decline as well. One writer has considered Hopkins as self-victimized in a symbol of his own making, that of a restricted bird. Christianity is a religion of constant struggle for Hopkins, and his poetry clearly reflects his ongoing attempt to discover meaning in that struggle.