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.
(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!”