Featured Poem: The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) says simple things in strange ways and so makes them exotic and fabulous. At times his way of wording is so utterly (and alliteratively) alien it reads and sounds scarcely human: as if some higher intelligence, the possessor of cosmic secrets, had manifested itself in the mind of a mild-mannered Victorian Jesuit priest and made him write. Hopkins’s experiments with metre (“sprung rhythm” as he termed the technique) may be difficult to understand, but the effect is unmistakeable. It’s like some fantastic code, a succulently succinct and strangely strenuous shorthand of pure sensation. “Distilled” is the word that comes to mind, as of a wine or spirit. He has taken, so it seems, ten pages of dense thought and description and kept blending and blending them down, making the mixture more and more concentrated, until we’re left with just a few words that say it all.

‘The Windhover’ is perhaps Hopkins’s best known poem, and you must read this one aloud: take slow, savouring sips and let each sprung syllable burst and fizz on your tongue and lips. The imagery is, to push a metaphor beyond all reasonable taste, intoxicating.

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: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
   Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

To summarise, in case it proves impenetrable on a first reading, Hopkins describes a Falcon (“morning’s minion”, the “dauphin”, or crown-prince, of daylight) drawn by the dawn’s dappled light and hovering high and steady in the air, as if riding an invisible horse. Then it suddenly performs an impressive sweep and glide, whereupon “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” – that is, all of these individual attributes melt and merge into the same thing: a kind of lovely, dangerous fire. But, he claims in the last stanza, there is no wonder in such beauty: it’s everywhere. Even a plodding plough shines as it cuts through the earth (“sillion”); and even unpromising “blue-bleak embers” can fall, break open, and reveal a burning gold-vermillion centre.

That’s a very basic summary – not to mention the allusions Hopkins is making to Christ, as his dedication implies – but it’s the language that really makes this poem fly. “The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

If you liked this, you can find other Hopkins poems here and here.

5 thoughts on “Featured Poem: The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins”

  1. Really it is a shame that the reader is being told how to approach this masterpiece and that is one of the drawbacks to the campaign to push poetry into the realm of the wider audience. You treat the audience as idiots and especially so with this. Sprung rhythm can be found in simple nursery rhyme and it simply demands that the reader use their imagination in ‘fitting’ the lines together. Children manage this without any bother, such as ‘Ring-a-ring-a-rosies’ or ‘Little Jack Horner; where the line length is different and so a musical way of reading it has been found.

    This is one of the greatest poems ever and I like the way that the critique of the poem draws out the spiritual essence of the poem. All poetry (as with all art) can be seen as spiritual, but it took a poet such as Hopkins to make that point. In doing so he shared much in common with the metaphysical poets, in particular, George Herbert.

    Congratulations on your choice of poem but maybe you should give the reader more credit than you do.

  2. Denis Joe – thanks for your reply. Interesting to read your thoughts. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the poem, I deny treating anyone like an idiot and am sorry you interpreted it in that way.

    I don’t think it’s patronising to champion the fun to be had in taking your time, in savouring the shape and sound of each word. We’re so used to reading quickly – scanning emails, skimming texts – that I find it takes an especial effort to slow down. Yes, most people can read and write – if they’re lucky enough to have been taught – but that’s different from seeing language as a source of real pleasure. Poetry takes practice.

    I couldn’t sail a boat. Wouldn’t know where to begin. Were I to find myself alone at sea in one – a la Ellen MacArthur – I would probably panic, feel rather sick and quickly decide this sailing lark wasn’t for me. Likewise, I can imagine someone new to poetry being confronted with “dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” and feeling similarly cast adrift, in need of a helping hand (even one as clumsy as mine) until they learn the ropes.

    That’s what The Reader tries to offer. If you’re already an Old Sea Dog and don’t need it, OK, but it’s there anyway, and somebody else might.

    My favourite Hopkins is ‘Spring and Fall (to a young child)’. Have you read it? I would’ve posted that, only it’s neither at the moment!


  3. Mark- I apologise for the manner in which my response was put across. I find it frustrating that there is, in these times, a ‘how to’ approach to all the arts. That the vast majority of people do no engage with poetry, just as they do not engage in classical music or other serious art forms is an historic fault; a result of class systems and the arts being the preserve of the higher classes.

    No ‘education’ programme is going to solve that. I believe that the situation is made worse by the introduction of a bureaucratic approach to the school curriculum which is like a to-do list rather than a voyage of discovery.

    I went to a bog standard secondary school as a child and although we were destined for factory work or apprenticeships we were still taught to read Shakespeare in Elizabethan English and we discussed it. Poetry, such as ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ or ‘A Shropshire Lad’ was the norm. Although this did not lead to a love affair with poetry, at least we were given the opportunity and the freedom to appreciate it and take that appreciation with us when we left school (most, like myself, without A or O levels).

    Today that approach, which nurtured children’s imagination and sense of adventure is no more and kids are being taught how to pass exams rather than how to appreciate knowledge.

    The issue over the Carol Ann Duffy poem, ‘Education for Leisure’, is a case in point. The reaction from Duffy was to say that the poem was ‘against’ knife crime rather than allowing the reader to decide for themselves. In doing this Duffy highlighted the disturbing nature of the role of the artist within contemporary society: Instead of the artist creating a working order to stimulate debate, she defended her poem on her meaning. In doing so she sees art as a tool of education (and worse: education by rote) rather than a medium to experience and develop in life in general.

    I am of the firm belief that the last thing an audience should look for in a poem is its meaning and when they do discover their meaning it will be a result of projecting their whole life experience onto a poem, by listening to it and hearing the music that makes a poem great.

    I feel that any educational approach to get more people to read poetry or engage with art is doomed to failure. There is no objective approach to our engaging with the arts. Thankfully we are all individuals and our relationship with others will determine our relationship with the arts.

    Neither is there anything to be gained by blaming technology. People read faster because of the nature of what they are reading rather than it being a way they have adapted to the modern world. Faced with poetry and its layout (enjambment, for instance) the audience can do nothing but slow down in order to understand what they have in front of them.

    Though I love poetry and take every opportunity to share that love, I accept that others will not want to engage. It is not because they lack the education but simply because they feel it is not for them. Whilst there is a way to experiencing poetry I have found that the most profitable course has been to discover that way myself and to ask about what I do not understand rather than be told how to experience it.

    I think that much of the work that Reader is doing is great. Literature and poetry (like all great art) have been denied to the wider sections of society and any attempt to amend that situation should be applauded.

    Let the poetry speak for itself!

  4. Mark I appreciated your critique of this wonderful poem. I studied it and other Hopkins’ poems for A level English nearly 50 years ago. I have always been overwhelmed by the way he uses word combinations to create vivid pictures. The day after I first read The Windhover I saw a bird hanging on the thermals and then swooping and immediately could hear Hopkins’ poem in my head. I have never forgotten it and everytime I read it it thrills me. I cannot think of another poet who uses alliteration so effectively. The line from his poem about the ash trees also remained in my memory “that dandled a sandled shadow that swam or sank on wind wandering weed winding bank.” Whenever I am by a tree lined river that line (or two) always comes into my mind. Sorry I cannot remember where the line breaks come and frankly I don’t think it is important.
    The point you made about the spiritual aspect of the poem is very important because Hopkins was a devout Jesuit though I believe he suffered doubts and torment when his faith was challenged. As I said it was many years ago that I studied Hopkins.
    I find it very sad that children in school are not introduced to poetry of this quality and if people are to truly appreciate it and understand it they need nudges to help them.
    Thank you for reminding me and enabling me to once again cnsider this poem in some depth. Incidentally I always say the words out loud because I love the sound of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *