Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The Windhover”
I fell in love with “The Windhover” when I was a teenager, recognizing right away the rapture of a love poem directed not at a particular person (though the poem is dedicated “To Christ our Lord”) but to life itself. The poem is widely anthologized, a cornerstone of the English canon, bridging the Victorian Age and early 20th century Modernism. Its author, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was a Jesuit priest who died at the age of 44. He had felt the tension between his religious and literary callings throughout his career, first burning all his work upon entering the priesthood, then taking up verses again only for church occasions, then writing a masterpiece in earnest, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” to elegize a handful of nuns who fled persecution in Germany only to drown in the high seas. Though that poem was commissioned, it was ultimately rejected by a Jesuit magazine, and thereafter Hopkins vacillated between joy and despair both in his poetry and about his poetry—but at least he continued to write it. He struggled with being a good servant of God, having failed his final theology exam, which relegated him to poor work assignments within the order. It would likely be a bittersweet victory for him to know that he now has indeed been canonized, not by his beloved Catholic Church, but by the majority of today’s pagan poetry anthologies.
When I was first discovering poetry, it was 1986 or so, and I was taught largely contemporary confessional and identity poetry written in modern, accessible, but (to me) dull language. So it was with a sympathetic ecstasy that I leaped back in time to Hopkins’s sonnet written on May 30, 1877:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! . . .
Again, it immediately seemed to me that this was a love poem. The density and emotion seemed to come from someone full of pent-up longing, who only just now was finding release in impersonal joy. Hopkins himself thought it was the best thing he ever wrote.
“The Windhover” starts out slow and heavy in the first four and a half lines because of its rich repetitions of sounds. Such close repetition of sounds always slows readers down. Not knowing right away what the subject is, and what the syntax is doing, also slows us down.
As the poem unreels in time, “I caught this morning” becomes “I caught this morning morning’s minion” (what could that be?). The repetition of “morning” forces us to pause between them. But wait, it doesn’t end there: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-”. The alliterative “m” sounds generate “minion,” which then is echoed immediately by “king.”
By the end of the first line we have no idea yet what was caught, though it seems to be a “king.” But the line break tricks us: it’s really “kingdom” and it’s part of a continuing, relentless trail of modifiers that are really metaphors, but metaphors of what? By the time we get to “Falcon,” the bird mentioned in the poem’s title, we’re far from certain that we’re talking about a real falcon and not a metaphor for yet something else. The poem, it turns out, is an epistemological narrative unfurling: What are we seeing?
Fear not: we are reading about a real falcon. “Windhover,” my dictionary tells me, is British dialect for a kestrel: “a small falcon that hovers with rapidly beating wings while searching for prey on the ground.” Hopkins wants to mime the falcon’s motion in his own poem, and the slow introduction is a kind of hovering, or a slow coming-to-focus that mimics any of us following a speck in the sky that slowly reveals itself to be a—wait, is that a bird, a plane, a buzzard, a hawk—?
The bird is riding a thermal: “the rolling underneath him steady air,” which, with its implied hyphens between the words, is a very particular type of air. “Striding” and “high” help build the feeling of “ecstasy,” as does “rung,” which is a technical term from falconry meaning “rising in a spiraling motion.” But Hopkins also sees that the bird is “reined” by his “wimpling wing”—a wimple is part of a nun’s headdress, which presses against her temples and keeps her hair back. In other words, the bird is exulting not only in the freedom of the air, but the resistance of it too, the friction.
. . . then off, off forth on a swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, —the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
The bird achieves or masters something in his successful negotiation of the powerful wind, and it is this that “stirs” Hopkins’s heart. His heart was “in hiding” before. Perhaps he was despondent or, like any of us most of the time, he wasn’t noticing anything in particular about his surroundings until that moment, that dawn or dawning, a symbol of reawakening. The speaker of the poem could be anyone—man or woman, old or young—who somehow steps out of the ego and, by inhabiting another creature, finds a sacramental joy in simply being alive. It was the same discovery John Keats made; in 1817, sixty years before Hopkins wrote “The Windhover,” Keats wrote in a letter: “I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness—I look for it if it be not in the present hour, —nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” [Keats to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817]
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born the eldest child in a large, happy household in London. His father, Manley, was a successful businessman in the marine insurance industry (actually, he began his career in medical school, studying alongside—of all people—John Keats). Hopkins could have had a brilliant career as a classicist, except that while studying at Oxford he had a cataclysmic experience: he was seized with conviction for the Roman Catholic Church.
The Church of England had separated from the Roman church in 1534, inciting centuries of conflict and repression: only in 1778, with the Catholic Relief Act, were Catholics allowed once again to hold and inherit property; in 1829, finally, they were allowed to vote and hold government positions. For a member of the establishment like Hopkins to turn his back on Anglicanism in 1866 was to jeopardize one’s future prospects and drive a wedge in one’s family. The decision to become a Jesuit would have created an irreparable rift.
Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Hopkins’s mimetic language turns from describing the kestrel’s flight in the first part of the sonnet (the eight-line octet) to describing how its dynamics are also hidden in other things—and, ultimately, his own soul. As when the kestrel is buffeted by the wind and then comes back stronger, fire breaks from things when they “buckle.” When the plow turns up the dull clods of earth, the new earth glints with minerals (“sillion” is a medieval term for the small strip of land granted to monasteries to farm). When a “blue-bleak” ember falls from a log, it flares up again with new light. And thus when the spirit falls against the opaque materiality of the world, it breaks open (gashes) with an insight, or illumination. (Hopkins here is echoing an earlier sonnet he wrote, “God’s Grandeur,” which begins with similar imagery: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”)
“The Windhover” also illuminates some of Hopkins’s thoughts on poetry’s purpose, as well as its rhythm and style. For Hopkins, being able to glimpse the inner form of things—as the ashen ember breaking open and revealing the glowing gold—is a special gift of the poet, courtesy of God the Maker. He coined the words instress and inscape, adapting these ideas from the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, but Hopkins never formalized his theories; rather, he used them as intuitive concepts, hybrids of insight + stress (stress as in poetic meter) and insight + landscape. Duns Scotus himself theorized the importance of haeceitty, or “thisness,” in God’s creation. The poet, then, sees through mere appearance to the particularity and freshness of every living thing. This belief also guided Hopkins to new metrical practices: he invented Sprung rhythm, which loosened the definition of meter by counting only stressed syllables in a line. Hopkins thought it gave poetry a more natural, energetic, and colloquial sound and allowed the poet to avoid a plodding iambic singsong rhythm.
As with many great poets, Hopkins’s contributions to his field were not recognized in his time. He died virtually unrecognized, though he had a lifelong friendship and correspondence with the man who would become poet laureate, Robert Bridges. In 1918, long after Hopkins’s death, Bridges edited the first edition of Hopkins’s Poems, little knowing that his obscure friend would soon eclipse his own reputation. Bridges had never fully understood or approved of Hopkins’s experiments, but today Bridges’s eminent, reserved, conventional body of work is scarcely read.
For all of Hopkins’s theories of rhythm and inscape, “The Windhover” is a sonnet as fierce and alive as that kestrel he saw in May 1877. When I first read it, for all my teenage ignorance about theology and archaic word meanings, it swept me up in its rhythms and dashed me down again with the sudden impact of that electrifying final line: “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.” If we hear through our eyes when we read any page of text, Hopkins taught me that in a great poem’s soundscapes, we “see” through our ears as well.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...