Audio

The Windhover

November 9, 2010

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, November 8th 2010. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, a religious poem that even an atheist can love. One of the greatest poems in our language went unnoticed for about 40 years after it was written on May 30th, 1877. We have since overcompensated perhaps, because for many years now this poem has been heavily anthologized and even taught in high school. But if any poem can stand the pressure of overexposure, this one can. It still seems wildly experimental and fresh, and nobody has yet been able to achieve anything quite like it. I’m talking about “The Windhover” by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the Learning Lab section of our website, poetryfoundation.org, you can find Hopkins’ poem and a really useful reading guide written by Angie Mlinko. Angie’s a poet and also a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston. Angie, when you first came across “The Windhover” as a teenager you said it blew your socks off. Why?

Angie Mlinko: I think it must have something to do with being a teenager. The level of emotion in a poem that’s so intense, and the language is so compact and intense, it speaks to that adolescent feeling of infatuation with the world when we fall in love for the first time. It’s clearly about being in love with Jesus, but I’m sure I didn’t understand half of this poem when I read it.

Curtis Fox: It’s a very dense poem, we’ll hear in a minute. But you also said in your essay about this poem that the language was so different from other poetry you were reading at the time.

Angie Mlinko: Yeah, it’s a common place now that poetry’s supposed to be in the vernacular, it’s supposed to mimic natural conversational rhythms. I don’t know how to explain that I just knew this is what poetry was, not necessarily distilled colloquial language but the sense of this highly rot artifice.

Curtis Fox: Angie as your guide tells us, a windhover is British dialect for a small falcon. You write that it hovers with rapidly beating wings while searching for pray on the ground. Let’s listen to it then we’ll go over it together. Here’s “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, read by Michael Stuhlbarg.

Michael Stuhlbarg: 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,

    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

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-vermilion.

 

Curtis Fox: If somebody’s hearing this for the first time, I imagine they have a hard time following. This is a poem that’s made to be read and reread and reread again to unpack the imagery that’s in it.

Angie Mlinko: I’m a firm believer that the poem is enjoyed as music first before it’s apprehended as an intellectual thing. I’m not saying that it’s not there to be apprehended as an intellectual thing, it just comes a beat after.

Curtis Fox: Let’s go through it a little bit because there’s so much packed in the language. Even in the very first phrase:

Michael Stuhlbarg: I caught this morning morning's minion,

Curtis Fox: First of all, what is a minion?

Angie Mlinko: A minion is a favorite, a darling, one’s darling person. Also a servent, or a soldier.

Michael Stuhlbarg: I caught this morning morning's minion, king-

    dom of daylight's dauphin

Curtis Fox: A “dauphin” is a French term for a prince basically, right?

Angie Mlinko: Yes. The kingdom of daylight is the morning, the central is the dauphin of the kingdom of daylight.

Curtis Fox: So he’s ruling the dawn, basically.

Angie Mlinko: He’s the prince of the dawn.

Michael Stuhlbarg: dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air

Curtis Fox: The falcon is riding a thermal, which is a column of warm air. He’s going up into the thermal.

Michael Stuhlbarg: and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy!

Curtis Fox: What does he mean by a wimpling wing?

Angie Mlinko: I took it to be the wimple of a nun’s headdress, which is a kind of harness.

Curtis Fox: Which would make sense because he’s a Catholic, he’s a Jesuit priest and he probably had contact with nuns.

Angie Mlinko: Right. And it also means rippling. The word “wrung” —

Michael Stuhlbarg: how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

Angie Mlinko: It’s a term from falconry meaning rising in a spiralling motion. It carries both that hidden meaning from falconry and it rings in our ears as a bell.

Curtis Fox: There’s also a horse metaphor in there — “how he rung upon the rein” he’s referring to the rein of a horse I’m assuming right there?

Angie Mlinko: Yes, I think that harks back to dapple-dawn-drawn falcon, which seems to allude the classical image of the sun being drawn by a chariot across the sky.

Michael Stuhlbarg: then off, off forth on swing,

    As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

    Rebuffed the big wind

Angie Mlinko: He’s being rebuffed by the wind, but also one hears the word buffeted. He’s going back and forth. And we too are going back and forth with the “s” sounds and then back to the “f” sounds.

Michael Stuhlbarg: My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Angie Mlinko: Hopkins does this quite a bit, it’s one of his technical innovations really, when he interrupts himself.

Michael Stuhlbarg: the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

    Buckle!

Curtis Fox: I’ve read this poem maybe 40 times but I’v never figured out what he meant by “buckle”. How does the bird buckle?

Angie Mlinko: In my mind I see the bird drop suddenly as if the wind died. I haven’t done enough bird watching myself —

Curtis Fox: I’m going to give my friend Brad Klein who’s a big birder a call. He actually knows a great deal about kestrels. I’ll see what his interpretation of that is.

Brad Klein: It could describe the collapse that when they dive for something. Like they see pray, they’ll just pull their wings in. It could mean buckle in the way that suddenly the bird seems to try to collapse, an object falling in free fall.

Curtis Fox: Thanks Brad. I’ve got to get back to Angie Mlinko and “The Windhover”.

Brad Klein: My pleasure.

Michael Stuhlbarg: AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

Curtis Fox: Christ in Christian imagery is usually rendered as a lamb, not a hawk. Not a predator. Is this a metaphor for Jesus?

Angie Mlinko: I’m trying to decide whether Christ is the kestrel and the pray is Hopkins soul, or if Hopkins soul is the bird looking for Jesus. I can’t quite decide that.

Curtis Fox: Unclear. But then the poem shifts and the poet starts looking for other metaphors which are much more humble than the hawk.

Michael Stuhlbarg: No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine

Angie Mlinko: This is an agricultural metaphor. You’re breaking up the compacted earth to plant crops.

Curtis Fox: But why does it shine?

Angie Mlinko: I believe it’s the minerals, the rocks, the glint in the soil once you turn it over so that the sun catches the glint of the minerals in the soil.

Curtis Fox: Then he uses another fairly humble metaphor of a dying fire.

Michael Stuhlbarg: and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Angie Mlinko: I think he’s speaking for us all when he points out that most of our life is sheer plod and blue-bleak embers. These moments where the world just breaks open and shows it’s intelligence and shows it’s beauty —

Curtis Fox: What’s the larger point he’s making in this poem? What’s his spiritual argument if you had to summarize it?

Angie Mlinko: The spiritual argument for me is probably about spiritual renewal. When you’re coming out of the darkness into the dawn, when you’re coming out of blue-bleak embers into gash gold-vermillion. To put it in cliche terms you have to go through the darkness to get to the dawn. You have to do the work in order to have that moment of inspiration. I also think strongly that you look to the world for guidance. What happens here is that he’s closely observing nature, he’s paying attention to the pattern of things. That breaks open an insight for him. The answers are out there in the world and in nature, we have to read the signs.

Curtis Fox: How many times do you think you’ve read this poem Angie?

Angie Mlinko: Wow, since I was 17 I don’t know. I had it memorized so it’s been with me every day since I was 17.

Curtis Fox: Does it still pack a charge for you?

Angie Mlinko: It does. It’s a continual reminder that poetry is not just self-expression, it’s not just fine language or even fine craft. It’s the charged moment. It’s underwritten by religious experience, or another order of experience altogether. Not just daily experience.

Curtis Fox: Thanks Angie.

Angie Mlinko: Thanks Curtis.

Curtis Fox: Angie Mlinko latest book of poems is called Shoulder Season from Coffee House Press. You can read some of her poems that were published in Poetry Magazine on our website, poetryfoundation.org, where you can also find Angie Mlinko’s guide to “The Windhover” and other articles. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

A close reading of the Gerard Manley Hopkins's classic poem.

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