Analysis of Hopkins’s The Windhover

Gerard Manley Hopkins regarded The Windhover as his best poem. It combines all his characteristic and idiosyncratic intensities with extraordinary verve and power. Hopkins focuses simultaneously on poetic form and on what that form itself represents—what its physical power may be said to embody, which is the power of Christ, to whom the poem is dedicated. The second person of the Trinity, Christ is at once the God who “fathers-forth” the beauty of the world (as Hopkins was to put it a month or two later in “Pied Beauty”) and the Son, the God who is forth-fathered and therefore like the world itself in his combination of all its attributes. Form is embodied in Hopkins because his poetic forms are all conceived as postures of the body in stress and in prayer. His distinction between “sprung” and “running” rhythm, for example (see sprung rhythm), and his stress on stress as at once a linguistic, psychological, and physical or physiological experience, shows how form and its content are one, or how content under sufficient pressure turns into the form that conveys and addresses it.

The windhover itself shows in its bodily posture the same relation to the world that the poem attempts in describing the bird. (A windhover is a kestrel, a kind of falcon.) In the way he rides the air, he sustains his posture through matching and reciprocating all the motions of the world he addresses and the motions of the medium through which he addresses it, “the rolling underneath him steady air” (l. 3).

We can see Hopkins doing what he describes the bird as doing in his own prosody. The poem is sufficiently condensed that it is worth examining the first few lines. On the morning of Wednesday, May 30, 1877, Hopkins sees a windhover hovering in the wind and then flying freely against it. He calls the bird “morning’s minion” (meaning morning’s darling, from the French mignon). This particular morning he sees the representative of morning itself. The windhover negotiates the connection between the particular as Hopkins experiences it and the general form of morning that fathers-forth all these particulars. The windhover—like John Keats’s nightingale in “Ode to a Nightingale”—belongs to both realms. The windhover is the beloved of morning and the inheritor and heir of the kingdom of daylight; therefore, it is itself an avatar of Christ, dauphin of the Kingdom of God.

The broken rhyme on king– / dom is not unprecedented in Hopkins, and here it is doing significant work. It stresses the assonance between king and the first syllable of minion, establishing the poem’s throughconnection, syllable by syllable or stress by stress, each one picking up and finding some new facet of the last. And it also carries this connection across larger arcs, so that king- will rhyme with wing, swing, and thing in the octet of this Petrarchan sonnet.

Those rhymes are also near rhymes with the -ing endings of the b-rhymes in the octet: riding, striding, gliding, hiding. But, most significantly, the carrying over of king- / dom to the next line mimics the bird’s selfsustained riding of the rolling air. It is as though the poem itself rides the unrolling of its lines, skates off when it wishes to, and rebuffs the wind. The poem represents how the bird’s achievement and mastery stirs the poet to write these lines (l. 8).

The crucial word in the poem is the much-discussed Buckle! in line 9. The word means both the collapsing of everything under its own stress and the union or conjoinment of everything together. The word dangerous picks up on the first meaning, and lovelier on the second (l. 10). Buckle means both the breaking and the filling in of what is broken in the variegated continuities of the world. The poem itself buckles, but the windhover continues its flight, and this explodes into a revelation of its own fantastic power. The danger and the loveliness go together: They represent the incessant freshness and sustained unprecedentedness of God.

This is so despite the world’s ancientness and the repetitiveness of the poetic form that represents it. “Shéer plod” (l. 12) refers both to ploughing the earth and the plodding of the poetic beat through its lines, the sillions (furrows) into which the earth is ploughed. But the sillions shine.

What is true of the earth is true of its cycles as well. The poem begins in the morning but is written at night, while Hopkins contemplates the embers in his fire and sees how they go from the compacted alliteration of the “blue-bleak” into the unexpected beauty of the “gold-vermilion.” The word gold picks up from gall by way of gash, the way the embers break open, which itself rhymes on fall in one of Hopkins’s linked pairs. The rhymed linkage in “Fall, gall” picks up from the alliterative linkage of “blue-bleak.” The fall is the result of buckling: The coals cannot sustain themselves. It also represents the Fall of humanity, one of the central concerns of Hopkins’s ministry as a Roman Catholic priest. But for Hopkins the buckling that leads to a fall also leads to the glory of the intense beauty, of which the fall turns out to be another version. It is Christ whom Hopkins addresses in the end with the interjection “ah my dear” (borrowed from George Herbert’s great 17th-century poem “Love” [III]). He is dear because he is there, and we know he is there because the beauty linked everywhere in the world is the sign of his presence. He is present, then, even in the fall, making it beautiful and thereby redeeming it with the incessant intensity of his presence.

Bridges, Robert. Preface to Notes to The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Edited by W. H. Gardner, 94–101. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.
Gardner, W. H. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889): A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949.
———, ed. Introduction to Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1963.
Hartman, Geoffrey. The Unmediated Vision: An Interpretation of Wordsworth, Hopkins, Rilke, and Valery. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters. Edited by Catherine Phillips. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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