In a letter written in 1879, Hopkins described this poem as “the best thing [he has] ever written.” I should pay more attention to the poem for that reason, to its genius, to its qualities, to why he liked it so much; but, instead, I am distracted by the very act of a poet naming a poem—a single poem—“the best thing he has ever written.” To know this, to be so sure of this, represents a clarity of poetic vision and ambition that I can only admire. Mostly, I am wondering whether what I have written is any good, whether it has any value as a poem. Hopkins, though was clear about this poem’s achievement, and the achievement was found in the act of making it, the act of revising until he felt it ready to go. From where we stand now, we can agree that it is an achievement, as poems go. Such a lively, unorthodox, almost playful poem when it comes to language, and yet a tidy homily in praise of Christ that is heartfelt, tender, risky, and complex. It is beautiful. Like many poems that I have come to admire and return to, this was a difficult poem for me. But I should qualify that. I had problems making a step-by-step journey into meaning with the poem. The syntax, the diction, the theology all defied me, distracted me and left me quite uncertain about the meaning of the poem. Yet, oddly enough, the poem still moved me—its energy, the rhythm and the richness of alliteration all suggested energy and drive:

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord
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! then off, off forth on swing, 5
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!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion 10
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
But my goodness, when you get the words and their meaning and start to speak the breathless drive of the poem, you can only feel a certain awe at the propulsion of the piece and the grace of the rhetoric: “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! Then off, off forth and swing.” (I intended only to quote one line, but the enjambments and the surprising accumulation of images in line after line kept me quoting, not able to decide where to stop—it is the power of the poem—just its physical power).
There is no question that for me, Hopkins’ passionate praise of Christ in this poem, so eloquently spoken, and yet so full of raw, common-place energy, gave me some solace as a poet in my hope to write with passion and skill about issues that were important to me, that caught my imagination, intellect and emotion.
I did try to imitate Hopkins when I was seventeen, but my efforts were marked by frustration and deeper admiration for his art. Still, I was able to separate myself from the challenges of being a poet so that I could just admire the poem for itself. There is a certain truth to the suggestion that studying the poem at school gave the poem more value to me than I might have experienced had I just read it on my own. Part of my pleasure in poetry in general, and in Hopkins in particular, came from the joy of cracking the code of meaning that changed a poem from a complex of words to something rich with intelligence, calculation and emotional truth. I enjoyed the business of trying to analyze poems, of seeking to grasp the context of the poem and to track down the intellectual journey of the poet in pulling these words together. Perhaps I was well taught, but for me the act of understanding the poem was inextricably linked to the pleasure I could derive from the poem. And yes, there was elation in moving from ignorance to enlightenment, an elation that was very personal, very private so much so that I could even be convinced that I owned something of the poem. It is a pleasure not unlike one that we derive from solving riddles, understanding proverbs, or breaking through the mystery of scripture. “The Windhover” became a study of language, of landscape, of the free-masonry of falconry, and of theology. And for a poet’s heart, there was something refreshing and brazing about a phrase like “the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!” where a verb could be transformed into a noun, and then reassured of its validity by placing it right beside a more conventional use of the noun. And that word “thing”, hanging there with audacious defiance—at once a suitable rhyme and at the same time an expression of the failure of language to name this beauty.
For a poet living in a world in which language was constantly subjected to mutation, stretching, punning, and weighted with political and ideological meaning—and here I am speaking of the world being influenced and shaped by Rastafarians who forced us to take every word seriously, to test it for its possible implications and to see language as hardly locked in by tradition, but open to transformation, Hopkins’ poetry resonated for me—gave me permission, then to think of language, the Jamaican language I was learning, in different ways.
Mostly, I like to read “The Windhover” aloud. I like to hear what happens to it in my mouth, and to feel what happens to my lungs when I am finished with it. It is a beautiful thing, no doubt about it.

Originally Published: July 10th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. July 11, 2007

    Kwame, thanks for this lovely post. The poems I fell in love with at 17 -- including "The Windhover" -- are burned into my brain. Learning poetry in the classroom, or from Norton's anthologies, when you are young can be one of the greatest liberating experiences in life. It was in mine.

  2. July 12, 2007

    Very moving - I think there are some poems that because there's a unique and personal context for the poet, they mean much more to the writer than the reader can 'calculate'. It is because of the sheer energy of the engagement with the moment(s) that inspired the writer to write, that the poem leaves such an impression on the reader.
    More power to free-spirited poems like this!@#%! - it inspires me - here was I feeling bogged down trying (and failing, no wonder :) to write a poem for a certain big prize.... shame on me!
    Peace, Niki

  3. July 13, 2007
     Tim Upperton

    As William Empson once noted, the complexity of Hopkins's poem centres on that word "buckle". Empson goes on to say that if Hopkins had been conscious of the two contrary meanings of the word, he would have suppressed the poem. I'm sure Hopkins knew exactly what he was doing: the Jesuit priest knows he should renounce the qualities the bird represents, especially pride - but at the same time, he finds the bird irresistibly beautiful. Renounce, or embrace? "Buckle" allows him to do both.