"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Poetry: “The Windhover” by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Part 2

In Part 1 I took you through a reading of the poem, but now I want to expand beyond a reading to an analysis.

Here is the poem in its entirety again so it’s easily before your eyes.

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.

Let’s first look at this from a language perspective.  Hopkins is known for replicating Anglo-Saxon rhythm and diction.  Certainly the frequent alliteration recalls early and middle English poetry.  And we get as expected from a Hopkins poem many Germanic rooted words: “dapple,” “dawn,” “drawn,” “morning,” “sheer,” “plod,” “plough,” “bleak,” “wimple,” “bow,” “kingdom,” and so on.  What I find remarkable, however, is how many Latinate, and more specifically, French rooted words Hopkins uses.  Notice how many: “minion,” “falcon,” “rein,” “brute,” “billion,” “dauphin,” “sillion,” “vermillion,” “air,” “dangerous,” “lovelier,” and, most conclusively, “chevalier.”  No doubt there is a conscious effort to create a dualistic contrast with diction.  It’s as if the two language roots are crashing together into that very same buckle that the wind and the falcon crash at the heart of the poem.  And what is interesting is how at the center of this is the word “buckle.”  Buckle to me sounds very Germanic/Anglo-Saxon, but when I looked up its etymology, I was surprised to find it comes from French.  The collapsing connotation of buckle comes from the middle French word, boucler, and coupling definition of buckle comes from the old French, bocle.  Not only is the drama of the falcon and wind meet at the word “buckle,” but so does the meeting of the two language groups.  So what is suggested here is an aesthetic of dualism.

Next let’s look at the sequence of metaphors:
1. The falcon as a servant (minion).
2. Falcon as a French aristocrat, a dauphin.
3. The daylight as a kingdom or territory.
4. Flying as if climbing unto a saddle, “rung upon the rein.”
5. Flying as skating on ice.
6. The collision of bird and wind as a joust and collapsing (buckling) of lances.
7. The meeting of bird and wind as a joining (buckled).
8. The collision of bird and wind causes dangerous fire.
9. The falcon as a knight (chevalier).
10. Hot broken embers form a gold shine.

I think those are the major metaphors.  The heart in hiding and stirring is more of a circumlocution than a fully developed metaphor.  So what does this all suggest?  Well, let’s set aside the metaphors that are merely there for descriptive purposes, numbers four, five and ten.  Numbers two and nine coordinate representing the falcon as an aristocratic, French knight.  Why a French knight?  I don’t see any particular reason why the knight needs to be French, but it allows Hopkins to bring in the French-rooted diction to collide with the Germanic/Anglo-Saxon diction.  Number three is a rather interesting metaphor, advancing light from the morning dawn as a territorial expansion, with the falcon then as sovereign.  But number one, in contrast to compared to a king, identifies the falcon as a servant (minion).  Number eight describes a metaphysical discharge from the buckling—in both senses of the word—bird and wind.  Numbers six and seven are the play on the word “buckle” as I outlined in the Part 1 post.

What does that all lead to?  It leads to a complex set of symbols, where the falcon stands for something beyond the mere surface of its being.  That shouldn’t surprise us.  Birds as symbols are a topos, a poetic meme that one frequently encounters.  Consider Keats’ nightingale, Poe’s raven, Stevens’ blackbird, Frosts’ oven bird, Shelley’s skylark, and so on.  Hopkins’ falcon is symbolic for Christ as servant and king, as knight and spirit, as prince of both the air and the dirt, of winged majesty and of humble plow.  Now we see why there is the aesthetic of duality.  It projects toward the double nature of Christ, man and God, flesh and spirit, king and servant, synthesized in His being.  And that brings us back to buckle, where two oppositions clash, discharge, and then couple.  Falcon and wind become one.  Nature, from air to dirt, becomes unified into wholeness, as the body of Christ brings all into unity.

Which brings me to a little controversy I mentioned in Part 1.  If you notice, there is a dedication underneath the title, “To Christ Our Lord.”  The dedication was not in the original writing of the poem, which occurred in 1877.  Hopkins added that seven years later in 1884, presumably because he felt this was his best work and he ought to offer it to our Lord.  According to some who read the poem as strictly a nature poem the suggestion of the falcon representing Christ only was inserted by the addition of the dedication.  Otherwise it’s a poem about a falcon and the hidden divine that is within the natural world, revealed by the energy of the falcon opposing the wind, the shiny, overturned soil, and the gold inside the cracked embers. 

Now the idea does have some merit.  It’s not one of those loony deconstructionist approaches.  It’s actually a New Criticism approach, which isn’t all that new.  It goes back to the 1940s.  Under New Criticism one rejects using the author’s background and the critic’s intuitive reductions and deals strictly with the poem’s text and structure.  Since Christ isn’t formally mentioned in the poem, one might be reading into the poem meaning that wasn’t there.  So was the dedication, the New Criticism critics might ask, added as an afterthought or to lead the reader to the meaning?

Oh I think it’s clear that the falcon symbolizes Christ.  Both servant and King can only suggest Christ.  Those that apply that restrictive a reading could never acknowledge any symbolism in any poetry.  I think the controversy is based on over intellectualizing.

I hope you now understand and appreciate this great poem.  It’s always beneficial to hear the poem read out loud by professional readers.  Here:


  1. What a beautiful analysis! And how unspeakably sad it would be to adhere to the New Criticism and not have the exquisite joy of discovering the spiritual and metaphysical truths behind the crash of words and wit.

    1. Hi Lit Lass. I hope you read both parts 1 and 2. This was one of my better analyses. Thank you, and so nice to see you back on the internet.

    2. Yes, I did read both parts. I'm in awe of Hopkins' "recreation" of traditional forms. (Just memorized "God's Grandeur" which is a sonnet, but with a mere four rhymes. Obviously Windhover is even more unique for abandoning pentameter.) I just fell in love with Hopkins this summer, so will look forward to any more anlyses you write.