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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Poetry: “The Windhover” by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Part 1

As I continue on my annual poetry read, this year being that of Gerard Manly Hopkins, I want to analyze in some depth one of the most original poems in the English language, arguably Hopkins’ greatest poem, and for sure one of my all time favorite poems ever written, “The Windhover.”  Actually Hopkins himself said it was “the best thing I ever wrote.”  Here is the poem, but don’t be intimidated, I’ll walk you through it. 

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.

First let’s get some of the basics out of the way.  It’s an Italian sonnet where amazingly all eight endings of the octave have one rhyme, “-ing.”  [The octave is the first eight lines; the sestet is the remaining six lines.]  The octave here contains one complex thought, which I’ll shortly decompose, and the sestet breaks down into two thought units, one in the first three lines, the other in the last three lines.
If it is a sonnet, it’s a rather experimental sonnet.  Sonnets typically contain ten syllables, making that pentameter, and the rhythm is usually iambic, which means it follows a rhythm of unstressed/stressed, five times per line.  The very first line does follow an iambic pentameter meter, the bold being a stressed syllable.  Bold type below signifies a stressed syllable, while normal type is unstressed.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

But what is one to make of the second line:

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

Sixteen syllables!  And with no regularity.  I won’t do this for the whole poem, but here are the next three lines:

   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,

The third line also has sixteen syllables, the fourth has fourteen syllables, and the fifth has eleven syllables.  There just isn't a pattern.

A couple of points can be made here about the meter.  Hopkins is a dissenter to the belief that natural rhythm of the English language is iambic.  He is actually prophetic here.  Other than Walt Whitman, and I don’t know if Hopkins was aware of Whitman’s poetry, no other poet before him broke from the iambic predominance in English poetry, with the possible exception of Robert BrowningBrowning had a penchant for quirky rhythms, Whitman considered his meter natural, and Hopkins called his meter “sprung rhythm.”  Between the three they pioneered what became known in the 20th century as “free verse.” 

Hopkins’ stretching of the lines beyond the traditional pentameter is both an aesthetic statement of breaking with tradition and reflects the soaring flight of the falcon within the lines.  Adding or subtracting an extra foot (a single syllable) is not unusual, but adding six most definitely is.  Notice also the enjambment (the running of lines into the next) in the octave, and how that also reflects the soaring freedom of the bird.  It makes the poem run.  I don’t ever recall seeing a hyphenation (“king-dom”) in any poetry before modernism get fragmented so that the first syllable ends a line and the next enjambs into the next.  It probably has occurred, and I suspect someone will point it out to me, but it’s not in my memory banks.  Did Hopkins do it just to be different or for the rhyme?  No!  It has thematic significance, which I’ll point out in part two of this analysis.

So, allow me to break down what is literally going on.  From the first chunk of meaning from the octave we have this, which I’ll reformulate in linear form:

“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!”

The poet saw a bird that morning, a falcon, who the poet calls a “dauphin” (a French aristocrat) and in whose flight appears to be either (a) being pulled in by the morning dawn light or (b) the falcon ahead of the dawn seemingly pulling the encroaching light across the sky.  Both of those meanings I think can fit “dawn-drawn Falcon.”  I’ve always seen it as (b) but I bet most people read it as (a).  Now the falcon is actually a windhover, which is a smaller species of falcon that can stop and hold itself still against the wind so that it appears to hover in the sky.  So to put this all together, the bird swooshes across the morning sky until he comes before the poet and just hangs still in an ecstasy. 

Now for the next chunk of meaning:

“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.”

After a moment of hovering, the falcon takes off, swooping like an ice skate heel pulling a precise turn.  In flight, the bird “rebuffs” the wind, that is, checks it or pushes back against it.  This is the first image of the bird in opposition to the wind.

“My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.”

Here the narrator steps forth and tells how at a moment of weakness or fragility—how does one interpret “my heart in hiding”?—was looking for some inspiration, some incredible finesse, some incredible skill, some “mastery.”  That completes the octave, and to put the complex thought together what we have is a poet looking for some inspiration when early one morning he catches sight of a falcon coming across the dawn light.

The sestet has a b-c-b, c-b-c rhyme scheme, which so beautifully interlocks.  And Hopkins chooses some of the hardest words to rhyme: “chevalier” and “vermillion.”  The first three lines of the sestet brings a climax to the bird/wind opposition, and the last three lines explains the meaning of event that enfolded before his eyes.

“Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here/Buckle!”

Here is the climax: the falcon (“brute beauty”) in full skillful sweep collides with the air into a crash.  The metaphor (implied through “chevalier” and “dauphin”) is of jousting knights coming to a crash.  The collision is described as a “Buckle,” and, if anything, how he uses this word shows Hopkins to be a great poet.  What a word to choose here.  To some degree the whole poem rests on this word “Buckle.”  Notice how he enjambs the word to the next line and ends the sentence one word into the line.  That’s a bit unusual, but it gives the word an immense power.  But what does he mean?  When jousting knights collide, their spears buckle.  It means a collapsing and breaking open.  But it means more.  Hopkins is punning on the word.  Buckle, like a belt buckle, brings things together, binds them.  But in what way does a bird flying into the wind buckle?  Yes, it’s metaphorical.  But it’s more than that.  It’s metaphysical.  What buckles and breaks open and binds together is transcendence.

“AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!”

What breaks open is literally the morning sun bursting with light, lovely and dangerous.  The bird, the wind, the sun, God’s creatures within God’s elements are integrated and charged with spirit.

But Hopkins is not finished there.  He then goes on to explain what the drama that unfolded before him means with two incredible and contrasting metaphors.

“No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion/Shine”

From the lofty action-filled imagery of the falcon and the wind, all of a sudden Hopkins is talking about a plough?  The burst of light, he says, should not be a wonder.  Why?  Because a plough plodding through dirt shines.  From the transcendent imagery of falcon and air and light, Hopkins switches to that of plough and earth and mundane.  Here too that gleam of transcendence is encapsulated in the “shine” that bursts forth from the activity.  Even the word sillion—a word coined by Hopkins, meaning the turned over soil that is not as dusky as that on top—suggests the innate glimmer of the divine that shines in all things, not just with a falcon, but with lowly dirt.

“and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,/Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”

Here he repeats how the divine is in everything with another image, embers in a fireplace.  As they burn, they fall and break open, and show the “gold vermillion” of its interior beauty.

That provides a reading of the poem.  This post is already a bit long, so I’m going to reserve the implications and aesthetic considerations in a part two, and even discuss a little controversy with this poem.  If you enjoyed this, stay tuned.


  1. ((( In my life, I have known when people are praying for me. I have felt it; been sustained by it. Help them to feel it. )))

    In all truthness Manny, Hopkins lost me before he was not finished there. That was before he then went on to explain what the drama that unfolded before he meant to tell of his two incredible and contrasting metaphors.

    Let's cut to the chase Man, I mean Manny! God knows everything and has a reason for what HE does. For example! Add He made me an educated engineer of wisdom like you are, long story short, the family people that know me now would not only not talk to me, they would probably have a contract on my way of thinking if YA get my drift?

    I'll simply close by saying with a lowly sillion spiritual blue-bleak embers of fireplace dirt that I'm happy to know that you are a friend.

    You are! Are YA not? LOL :)


    God Bless

    1. I'm glad you read this Victor. I'll make you a literary expert yet. :) Of course I'm your frined. God bless you and your family.

  2. Love your explanation of the climax, particularly of the unifying that hinges on his use of the word "buckle" and the following contrast with the plough image. Your analysis really helped me draw the connections between the images :)

    1. Glad it helped. Thanks for reading it. :)

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