Mar 22, 2010


The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

“The Windhover” might be Hopkins’ most famous poem, unless that would be “God’s Grandeur,” another work of praise for natural beauty and the divinity within it. “More complex and more interesting than “God’s Grandeur” or “Pied Beauty,” “The Windhover” is an Italian sonnet in which a central metaphor compares Jesus Christ to a falcon, a bird of spectacular physical beauty, a bird of prey, a killer—which is also seen as a knight, a lover, and a plowman.

These dramatic, shocking, and beautiful aspects of the falcon are most evident when it dives, which is signaled by the (curious) word buckle. That is, the falcon’s hovering collapses, as in knees buckling, and all the bird’s glorious qualities latch together like a belt buckle and shine as he dives, seeming to fall toward his prey.

Consider the qualities of Jesus that most emphatically and happily stun Hopkins into ecstasy and adoration (and a whiff of lust). The falcon is royalty, a prince, a knight and warrior (“dauphin,” “dangerous . . . chevalier”). He's even French, for heaven's sake. True, he’s also a servant (“minion”) but a servant who’s a darling (again that word, “minion”) of the morning sky, (“daylight’s dauphin,” a prince of the whole sky). And maybe most shocking—unless it’s more a part of Catholic doctrine than I realize—Hopkins’ Jesus stirs potentially erotic feelings: “my heart in hiding / Stirred” and “ah, my dear.”

Is this somewhere close to the idea that nuns marry Jesus? If so, is the speaker presenting himself as a female admirer? If so, is Hopkins, as author, aware of that, or has the poem gotten away from him—maybe the way, according to some scholars, that Milton’s Satan got away from him in Paradise Lost and became the most attractive character in the story?

In any case, the Jesus of “The Windhover” is no meek, poverty-stricken, pal-of-the-beggars or turning-the-other-cheek kind of guy. Christian humility is not what has snowed Hopkins. This is a Jesus of speed and power in the free-fall dive of a predator who stabs field mice and soars upward with them. This Jesus is one of those bullying knights with “brute beauty, valor, pride, plume.” And the speaker feels such a suggestion of erotic love for Jesus as falcon, or the falcon as Jesus, that his heart must stay “in hiding” as he expresses his rapture.

What would Pat Robertson think of Hopkins’ Lord? What would the Puritans have said?

As he was in “Carrion Comfort,” Hopkins is so excessive about his emotions, his word choice, and his indulgence in sound devices that he risks self-mockery. (In my judgment, this is only true in “my heart . . . / Stirred for a bird”). But if we’re supposed to think of a Christian’s religious love as a passion, what better illustration of it than to make lovers of the mortal servant and his eternal Lord?

Notice, however, that the bird’s flashy power has not come out of nowhere; he has to earn it. In the poem’s opening six lines, notice the hints of labor, as the falcon works in the wind, and has to “rebuff” it. That’s beautiful in its way, but finally in lines 5 and 7—and not until then—we come to freeing words of soaring or victory, like “ecstasy” and “rebuffed the big wind.”

In the poem’s final three lines (the second half of the Italian sonnet’s sestet), we return explicitly to the idea of labor coming to fruition—something like the way “Sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine” in “Pied Beauty.” The soaring of the falcon is now (re)viewed as “blue-bleak,” or nearly dead, “embers.” But like the diving falcon, they suddenly, dramatically “fall.” Even in a domestic hearth, they crash, and it’s in that fall that they “gall” themselves and produce a flash of brilliance that can “gash gold-vermilion.”

So it’s at least a plausible argument to say the whole poem has been about a prince (or merely a knight) who’s had to struggle against, negotiate with nature’s “rolling level underneath him steady air” before he can dive into glory, fall, plummet, and in that descent become “fire” and “mastery.”

I haven’t been back to “The Windhover” for a while, and I must say, it holds up terrifically well for me. I’m not sure I can think of a poem that’s any better in demonstrating what I’ve meant at Banjo52 when I’ve harped about super-good poetry offering gifts along the way to the even greater gift of a whole that consists of major ideas, emotions, experiences. Maybe a great poem is something like a falcon—we stand and witness as it hovers, it dives.

The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Brenda's Arizona said...

I'm sorry to say my first thought was "OH no, not another sulky GMH!" But you are right, this one is a song of rejoicing.

I am not sure I see him addressing the falcon as Jesus - is that what you have suggested? Instead I just saw the poem dedicated to Jesus, and spoken as it to celebrate the beauty of the falcon.

The analogies are contagious, if only to GMH. He seems to be on a roll - one lofty description after another. Was he manic at the time he wrote this?? Probably.

But his last stanza leaves me feeling dull. HUH? Too much alliteration?? 'shéer plódshéer plód slowly'?

I sighed and drew the covers around me. So much for soaring today... he lost me here.

Anonymous said...

Not my favorite poem, but appreciate your thoughtful interpretation.

Lovers' Lane