25 pages • 50 minutes readGerard Manley Hopkins
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“The Windhover” (1877;1918) is a sonnet by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Hopkins, a Victorian poet and Jesuit priest, wrote the poem as an expression of Christian devotion and in praise of Jesus Christ. The poem uses the image of a common kestrel, a type of falcon, as a launching point for the moment of religious epiphany the speaker feels, which leads to the belief that there is light within all people that religious experience illuminates and sets free.
While the poem can be difficult to classify, it can be viewed as a precursor to modernism and as a bridge between the Modernists and the Victorian poets. The poem also contains some aspects of Romanticism in its appreciation of the natural world. The poem’s unusual syntax and use of juxtaposition place it closer to Modernism while its form and content are closer to Victorian poetry.
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Most critics consider “The Windhover” to be Hopkins's best poem, and it is his most well-known work.
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Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844, in Stratford, Essex, England. Hopkins’s father worked for the English government and wrote poetry. The rest of his family was educated and artistic, and from an early age Hopkins’s family encouraged him to pursue his artistic interests and talents. Art and creativity ran in the family, and many of Hopkins’s siblings pursued careers in various artistic fields from visual arts to language studies. Hopkins’s family was also deeply religious, and Hopkins was raised a devout Protestant. Hopkins received an excellent education and eventually studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford.
Shortly after converting to Catholicism in 1866, Hopkins burned all of the poetry he had written up to that point and stopped writing poetry until 1875. During this time, Hopkins believed poetry kept him from fully embracing his religious beliefs, but he eventually found a way to merge his two passions.
Over the course of the next decade Hopkins would hold a variety of teaching jobs throughout England and Ireland, and he would continue his religious studies as a Jesuit. Hopkins seemed to struggle during this time as he balanced his religious beliefs with his desire to publish and to pursue poetry. He also withdrew into great isolation during his last years as his melancholy increased and his health declined. Hopkins would eventually die in 1889 from typhoid fever at the age of 44.
While Hopkins did not publish during his lifetime, his friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges published some of his poems after Hopkins’s death. While Hopkins would eventually become a highly regarded poet, in life he struggled mightily with the decision not to publish, and many scholars believed he suffered from depression.
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.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Windhover.” 1877. Poetry Foundation.
The poem opens with a description of the speaker observing a bird, the windhover, floating in the air. The speaker compares the windhover to a “dauphin” (Line 2), or prince, riding atop a horse, and he calls the bird the “morning’s minion” (Line 1), or morning’s darling. At this moment, the windhover is hovering still above the ground as it “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing” (Line 4), suggesting a controlled, tense wing suspending the bird in the air.
Suddenly, the metaphor switches from a rider on horseback to the smooth grace of an ice skater. In this moment of movement, the bird “[r]ebuff[s] the big wind” (Line 7), and these movements stir a moment of reverence for the speaker. As he watches the bird, he feels the expertise and mastery the bird has over its own body, its movement, and the air, and at the end of the first stanza, the poet feels his own sense of ecstasy.
In the second stanza, the scene shifts to a more introspective expression of the poet’s feelings. The poet merges his feeling at the sight of the bird with the images he’s just described. The beauty and ecstasy of the moment provide him with a moment of religious epiphany, and a fire suddenly burns before him. The fire reminds the speaker of the fire of Christ’s life and love, and he calls upon his Lord with another medieval term similar to dauphin in line two: chevalier. In this stanza, the poet makes clear that the light and beauty from the bird buckles before the light of his Lord.
The final stanza introduces another comparison between this experience with the bird and the experience of plowing dirt. The poet remarks about how this experience is as common as tilling the earth, and he says how continual plowing actually helps the plow sparkle even more than not using it at all.
The poem ends with the image of a fire bursting open to reveal a “gold-vermillion” interior (Line 14).
By Gerard Manley Hopkins