Analysis of Poem "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Updated on January 23, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins | Source

Hopkins and The Windhover


The Windhover is one of the best known sonnets by Gerard Manley Hopkins and was inspired by the sight of a small falcon, a kestrel, which often faces against the wind to hover above its prey. Hence the alternative name of windhover.

More significant however is the transformation of the bird into a spiritual symbol of Christ. As a Jesuit priest Hopkins was clear in his belief that the beauty in Nature mirrored the beauty of God. Much of his poetry was created in order to find a way to God, through the Christ figure.

Through observation and contemplation Hopkins was able to fulfil one of the spiritual exercises he practiced, created by Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus. Study of the natural world in particular inspired his poetry, which he hoped would express the love he had for beauty.

So a bird such as the kestrel, with its unique ability to hold itself steady in a wind and then suddenly with barely a wing move, swing and circle away, held a special place in the poet's heart.

The flight of the bird is 'represented in the rhythms and movements of the sound of the spoken poetry', so wrote Hopkins, a keen technical poet and creator of the unique sprung rhythm, which uses alliteration and varied stress beats to create unusually textured lines.

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,

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.

Analysis


The Windhover is a sonnet of fourteen lines. The octet (eight lines) is separate from the sestet (six lines) signifying a change or turn in the meaning of the whole. Note the full end rhymes of the octet : king/riding/striding/wing/swing/gliding/hiding/thing.

The sestet has a slightly different rhyming sequence : here/billion/chevalier/sillion/dear/vermilion. So the change in this second part of the sonnet is a definite break from what has gone before.

The first eight lines represent the speaker being inspired by the flight of the falcon and the next six lines represent the spiritual influence of Christ, transformed out of the 'fire that breaks.'

So, Hopkins chose the sonnet form because of its association with love and the romantic tradition, but made it his own by compressing the syllables, doing away with the usual rhyme schemes and using unusual words.

And don't forget that :

  • Hopkins developed a language of his own to help describe the inner rhythmic world of the poem he had created. He used the word inscape to denote the unique characteristics of a poem, its essence, and the word instress which conveys the experience a person has of the inscape.
  • He also created the term sprung rhythm to help make the rhythms of his verse 'brighter, livelier, more lustrous'. This metrical system is based on abrupt use of strong stresses followed by unstressed, the energy of the stresses springing through the alliterative syllables that make up the rest of the line.

So for example, from line 2 :

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-

dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Unusual Words

Line 1 : minion - darling

Line 2 : dauphin - french for eldest son of the king

Line 4 : rung upon - to lead a horse in a circle on a long rein

wimpling: rippling

Line 10 : buckle - either to fasten into one, or to collapse/crumble away.

Line 11 : chevalier - french for knight, champion

Line 12 : sillion - ridge between two furrows

Line 14 : gall - break the surface of.

Further Analysis


This poem is best read out loud several times, only then will the ear become accustomed to the rhythms and sound patterns of these complex but beautiful lines.

What strikes from the outset is the amount of alliteration and assonance throughout - the poet is showing off somewhat, which could be a reflection of the action of the falcon, a master of the air.

The use of the simple past I caught suggests caught sight of, but could also imply the act of catching, as when a falcon is caught by the falconer.

By splitting the word kingdom at the end of the first line the poet introduces enjambment, a natural way of pausing whilst sustaining the sense; king also implies the regal authority of the bird.

The poet is also reinforcing the idea of wonder, for here is a predatory bird manipulating the wind in a light that seems to set it on fire. Could it be that the alliteration suspends time as the reader catches breath to finish the line?

Note however that, within the many lines that suspend then run and hold on by a thread, the end rhymes keep everything in order, they stop the whole bursting out or breaking: they act as a skin, keeping the organic contents tight.

When you read through the poem a number of times, these full end rhymes become crucial, as does the use of enjambment, the running of one line into another, to maintain the sense.

For example, when we move from the second to third line the emphasis is on the bird's skill - note the caesura (natural break) needed after rolling level - as it maintains its position before swinging away in a perfect curve later on in lines five and six.

Rung upon the rein is a term used to describe the circle made by a horse when kept at pace on a tight rein, so the bird is able to use the rippling wing before moving off smoothly, ecstatically, somewhat like a skater rounding a bend.

  • The bird then beats back the strong wind which is uplifting for the speaker, in fact, so inspiring is the flight and aerial prowess of the falcon a transformation takes place. All the qualities of the kestrel in the whole airborne act, buckle, that is, collapse and then re-combine as one in a spiritual fire : the clean, cruciform profile of the bird when it breaks from a hover, is symbolic of Christ.

This revelatory scene is both beautifully exquisite and thrilling - this is a different dimension, connected to the world of flesh and bone and earth yet transcending reality. The speaker addresses the bird (Christ) as chevalier, a french word meaning knight or champion.

But we shouldn't be surprised when this fabulous falcon elicits such spiritual energy. Take the routine of the humble plough, even that can make the furrowed ridges shine and outwardly dull embers suddenly break and reveal this gorgeous golden red.

The speaker is in awe of this everyday occurrence - a kestrel hovering then moving on against the wind - and likens the event to a wondrous religious experience. The suggestion is that common things hold an almost mystical significance and are charged with potential.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Andrew Spacey

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