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Have you ever stopped to ponder in awe of how birds can fly so effortlessly? In his poem, 'The Windhover' (1918), Gerard Manley Hopkins illustrates the grace and intensity with which a Kestrel falcon - also known as a Windhover - hovers in the air and powerfully dives to swoop his prey. Not only can the Windhover fly, but it can fly at the same speed as the opposing wind. Witnessing this magnificent moment that occurs so casually in nature makes Hopkins reflect on his life's meaning in light of his Christian faith.
A Kestrel falcon, or Windhover hunting, Pixabay.com
|'The Windhover' Poem Information Overview|
|Author:||Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844‐1889)|
|Date written:||May 30, 1877|
|Date published:||1918 in Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins|
|Type of poem:||Sonnet|
|Key Themes:||The power and perfection of nature, the power and praise of Jesus Christ|
|Literary Techniques:||Symbolism, allusion, word choice/connotation, enjambment, alliteration, rhyme, assonance, imagery|
Let us take a look at the different context used in the windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote ‘The Windhover’ on May 30, 1877, while he was studying theology amidst the beautiful scenery of St. Bueno’s College in North Wales. In September of the same year, Hopkins was ordained a Jesuit priest. ’The Windhover’ was inspired by Hopkins’s religious life and studies, along with his love for nature as a reflection of God’s glory.
St. Beuno's Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales
'The Windhover' was written during the Victorian Era (1837-1901), towards the end of the Romantic literary movement (1790-1850), and before Modernism became prominent in the early 1900s. Gerard Manly Hopkins embraced the emphasis on nature and emotion defined by Romanticism, as well as influencing the experimental nature of Modernism.
Hopkins's poems are seen as a precursor to and influence on Modernism, as he did not adhere to Victorian trends for writings, but experimented with sound, rhythm, language, and imagery in order to explore themes of emotion, melancholy, religious praise, and environmental beauty and protection.
Though Hopkins did not adhere to the standard rules of poetry for his time, he is known as one of the most unique and important Victorian Era poets. The Victorian Era spanned from 1837 to 1901. These years are characterized by the rule of Queen Victoria, the global power of Britain as a growing state with a robust economy, and segregation by social class systems and gender. Though Britain was a very wealthy country at the time, there was a very large, struggling working class.
During the Victorian Era, voting rights progressively increased with time. In 1829, Catholic men were granted the right to vote, in 1867 and 1884, working-class men were allowed to vote, and by 1918, most women over the age of 30 could vote as well. The Anglican Churches were highly prominent during the Victorian Era, and Hopkins converted to Catholicism at a time when Catholics were regaining their rights and still feeling the effects of the Protestant Reformation which began in the 1500s.
Gerard Manley Hopkins begins his poem with a dedication to Jesus Christ, and biblical references are present from the outset of the poet, as the poet describes the falcon as “king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin” 1 (Lines 1-2). This intentional word choice alludes to Jesus Christ as a ruler of the kingdom of heaven. In the morning, the speaker sees a spotted falcon hovering in the air, "riding", "striding", and "rolling" with "steady air" 1 beneath him, as he flies at the same speed as the opposing wind (Lines 2-3).
The falcon hangs in the air in "ecstasy" and then swoops down perfectly and suddenly (Line 5). The speaker remarks that his heart was "in hiding," or he was not feeling very alive or inspired until he witnessed the perfection and excitement of the bird's shift from stagnance to sweeping dive, which he refers to as "the mastery of the thing!" 1 (Lines 7-8).
Hopkins refers to a metaphorical fire that breaks as the bird swoops, and says that the fire that breaks from Christ is “a billion Times / told lovelier, more dangerous” (Lines 10-11). This fire may reference Christ’s descent into hell to save sinners and his consent to mortal life and suffering for the sake of redeeming human sins. The Holy Spirit, the third person in the Holy Trinity that represents God in the Catholic faith, is biblically represented by wind, fire, and a descending dove.
The speaker returns to the address of Christ in line 11, saying “O my chevalier!,” 1, or knight/soldier. Jesus Christ was represented as a knight in the Middle Ages, hence the medieval French words from this time period such as ”minion,” meaning darling, favorite, and ”dauphin,” which refers to the eldest prince.
Gerard Manley Hopkins refers to plowing fertile land, saying that the slow overturning of the soil creates thick and shiny soil for planting. These references to farming and cultivation also allude to Christ, who often told parables related to agriculture and is represented as a good shepherd in Christianity.
At the end of the poem, Hopkins uses the words “fall”, “gall”, and “gash gold-vermillion” 1 to point to Christ's crucifixion, his descent into hell due to humanity’s fallen nature, his wounds, and the blood he shed for human redemption (Line 14).
|Line||'The Windhover' by Gerard Manley Hopkins||Notes|
|To Christ our Lord||the poem is dedicated to Jesus Christ|
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!
|minion: darling, favorite; servantdauphin: prince, eldest son of a kingdapple: spotted, speckledwimpling: rippling; a cloth that frames the face, worn by some nuns as part of their habit to keep hair away from the facerebuffed: rejected, refused|
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!
|valour (valor): bravery, courageplume: a large feather of a bird; rising column of smoke, dust, or firebuckle: to prepare for fight or battle; fasten; bendchevalier: knight, soldier|
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.
|shéer plód: slowly, with much consistent effort (the accent marks inform readers to place more emphasis on these marks)plough: plowsillion: thick, shiny soil turned over by a plowgall: to make sore by chafingvermilion: a bright red color|
The following paragraphs analyse the windhover
’The Windhover’ is a variation of a sonnet, or 14-line poem with a set meter and rhyme scheme. Sonnets were traditionally written as love poems, so the form in itself indicates that this poem is a love poem. The dedication indicates that ‘The Windhover' is a poem for the love of “Christ our Lord.”
More specifically, ‘The Windhover’ is a Petrarchan sonnet, which is typically 14 lines split into one octet (8 line stanza) plus one sestet (6 line stanza). The rhyme scheme of the octet normally follows ABBA ABBA, while the rhyme scheme of the sestet can vary. 'The Windhover’ follows these standards of a Petrarchan sonnet, but is a bit experimental in its rhyme scheme and meter.
The rhyme scheme of ‘The Windhover’ is the traditional ABBAABBA followed by a sestet of CDC DCD. However, in the octet, the A and B rhymes are very close, as all the words at the ends of the verses end in “ing.” The close rhymes, as well as the enjambment, or the continuation of one line of poetry into the next, creates a continuity of sounds that mimics the falcon‘s cool, swift gliding.
The end rhymes of the first octet, or first eight lines follow:
Meter is the basic rhythm that the lines of a poem follow.
The typical sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, meaning each line contains ten syllables in an alternating pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The first line of ‘The Windhover’ follows traditional iambic pentameter:
However, Gerard Manley Hopkins found the consistent, bouncy rhythm of iambic pentameter to be too unnatural. Hopkins coined a name for his preferred type of meter known as sprung rhythm.
Sprung rhythm is a type of meter than counts the number of stressed syllables in a line, but can vary in the number of unstressed syllables. The term sprung rhythm was created by Gerard Manley Hopkins to describe a form of meter that sounds more natural in mimicking the stresses in regular speech.
‘The Windhover’ follows sprung rhythm, as there are 5 stressed syllables per line, but the number of unstressed syllables varies (hence the variation in line lengths). Take the second line of the poem as an example:
“dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding”
This line has a total of 16 syllables, 5 stressed and 11 unstressed.
Notice how the alliteration, or repetition of the beginning sounds of words, helps establish the sprung rhythm of the poem. Do you prefer iambic pentameter or sprung rhythm? Why?
Gerard Manley Hopkins's poems often center around religious meanings, symbols, and themes illustrated through nature. One meaning of the 'The Windhover' is that the glory of God is reflected in nature. This meaning can best be understood through exploration of the poem’s symbolism and themes of the power and perfection of nature, and the power and praise of Jesus Christ.
A key to understanding ‘The Windhover’ is seeing the bird as both an embodiment of the power and perfection of nature being witnessed by the speaker, and also as an embodiment of Christ. This duel interpretation of the bird reflects a natural experience of awe and a greater spiritual understanding of it, that of being in awe of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The symbol of the bird as Christ can be understood through biblical symbolism, Hopkins’s word choice, and references to different representations of Christ.
In the Middle Ages, Christ was depicted as a knight, which is why Hopkins addresses him as “O my chevalier!” (Line 11). Hopkins also uses medieval French words such as “dauphin” and refers to a “kingdom” in order to allude to Christ, who is seen as the son of God, and ruler of the kingdom of heaven.
The agricultural references to the plough and soil towards the end of the poem link to Christ, who often told moral lessons in parables, or short stories related to fruit trees, seeds, soil, planting, and harvest. While the plough overturns the soil to create rich, shiny soil for planting, Christ overturns human hearts to make them figuratively shiny and new.
Let us take a look at some themes in the windhover.
In ‘The Windhover,’ the power and perfection of the bird’s flight and swoop make the speaker feel alive. Lines 7 to 8 state, ”My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” This powerful witness of nature brings the speaker out of himself and calls him to feel alive in awe of nature’s power and beauty. The bird has mastered its flight through its relationship with the wind.
In Christianity, the Holy Spirit of God is often represented as a dove, fire, and the wind. In ’The Windhover,’ the bird descends down to the earth, like the dove and fire of the Holy Sprit descends upon people in the Bible, signifying God’s grace and presence. The bird flies with the “steady air…rolling level underneath him” as Christians see the perfection of their lives as stemming from cooperation with God’s grace, or the Holy Spirit.
The words “gash gold-vermillion” in the final line of the poem symbolize Christ’s wounds and blood as he dies on the cross. In Christianity, Christ’s death on the cross contained the power to save people from their sins through a great act of love that fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament of the Bible.
Christian love is understood through sacrifice, and Christ made the ultimate act of love for humanity in suffering and laying down his life for humans’ sins. Thus, it is strangely appropriate that it is a love poem in the sonnet form, as the poem reflects Christ’s love for the world and the speaker’s love and praise of Christ.
Gerard Manley Hopkins praises Jesus Christ by saying that the magnificence of his act on the cross is a billion times greater than that of the bird in its motion: “the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” (Lines 10-11). The reference to Christ as a “chevalier” or knight, indicates that he is a savior of people.
Gerard Manley Hopkins's writing is greatly guided by sound and rich imagery. It uses an abundance of literary devices, such as alliteration, assonance, and imagery, which can be identified from the first three lines of the poem:
Can you find examples of these literary devices in the poem yourself? What effect do you think they have on the meaning of the poem?
“daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” 1 (Line 2)
The repetition of the “d” sound at the beginning of each word in the phrase is an example of alliteration. Hopkins uses alliteration to create a playful, engaging tone and to help establish the stresses in his sprung rhythm.
The alliteration in this example makes the reader pause to reflect on what the falcon actually looks like, as it takes effort to decipher the meaning between the close-sounding words. In this way, the reader's puzzlement yet satisfaction at the sound of the words reflects the speaker's reaction to seeing the bird and contemplating the beauty of its flight.
The same example also contains assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds in a phrase:
”daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” 1 (Line 2)
The “o” sound reflected in the “au/aw” of the words creates an elongated or drawn-out feeling of the phrase. The consistency of the sounds reflects the static motion of the bird as it hovers, waiting to swoop down on its prey. The sound implies an air of boredom similar to a yawn, creating a sleepy morning atmosphere. The long string of words with repetitive sounds also directs the reader's attention to the seemingly long-awaited reveal of the poem’s subject, the Falcon.
Gerard Manley Hopkins uses the imagery of the falcon flying in the sky to appeal to the reader’s visual and tactile senses. The reader can imagine the early morning daylight shining on the spotted or “dapple-dawn-drawn“ bird, and feel the steady undercurrent of wind that sustains its flight.
Establishing and immersing the reader in this initial depiction and feeling of the beauty of nature, allows Hopkins to expand on the symbolism of the falcon with an initial image to ground readers in the familiarity of nature.
The general themes of 'The Windhover' are the power and perfection of nature, and the power and praise of Jesus Christ.
The 'The Windhover' represents the beauty and power of nature, as well as being a reflection of the glory of God to the poet.
The religious significance of the poem 'The Windhover' is that it is ultimately a poem of love and praise for Jesus Chirst. Christ's glory is reflected in, yet triumphs over the power and perfection of the falcon in flight. 'The Windhover' begins with the dedication 'To Christ our Lord.' Its author, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest.
Imagery related to a Kestrel falcon in flight, skate in motion, fire and embers breaking, ploughing soil, and blood and wounds is used in the poem 'The Windhover.'
The bird's power, grace, and descent down to catch its prey is a metaphor for Jesus's power, grace, and descent down to earth and eventually to hell, in order to save humanity from its sins.
What was Hopkins studying when he wrote 'The Windhover'?
What era was 'The Windhover' written during?
The Victorian Era
What are two key themes of 'The Windhover'?
The power and perfection of nature, and the power and praise of Jesus Christ.
To whom is the poem dedicated to?
"To Christ our Lord"
What kind of sonnet is 'The Windhover'?
A Petrarchan Sonnet
How many lines is a typical sonnet?
Which of the following is not true about the meter of 'The Windhover'?
It is written in full iambic pentameter
What sound-related literary techniques does 'The Windhover' use?
Alliteration and assonance
Which of the following is not imagery found in the poem?
Why is the falcon called a "Windhover"?
It hovers in the air before swooping to catch its prey
What is the windhover a symbol of?
Jesus Christ/ The glory of God in nature
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