Analysis of ‘The Windhover’ poem by Gerard Hopkins Essay
“The Windhover” by Gerard Hopkins stands as one of his most influential poems to date. Though Hopkins wrote the poem around the year 1877, it was published in 1918 after his death. Before analysing this poem, it is important to understand the social and cultural backdrop of the time in which it was written, and in particular the poet’s reasons for writing it. Hopkins himself stated that the poem “was not based on real incident,” yet it seems apparent that his “Roman Catholic identity in the Anglican culture that he chose to reject” undeniably had a detrimental impact to him, both as an individual, and a writer of the Victorian era.
So much so, that family and friends disregarded him while even “university posts and positions in the clergy were closed to him. ” As a celibate priest torn between the incompatibility between his literary and religious duties, it is no surprise as to why religion resonates so heavily in Hopkins’ poem. It is evident from works of the epoch by poets such as Rossetti and Aguilar that Victorian society was clerical. The critic Bristow J. (2000) holds that indeed there was an “intrinsic connection between poetic and religious concerns,” and this goes to show the importance of the Christian belief in this period.
The dictionary definition for ‘Windhover’ is quite simply a “British dialect name for a Kestrel” (Collins Dictionary, 2015) It is a bird renowned for its aerial presence and predatory instincts. As such, it ought to be expected that the speaker is paying homage to this bird, yet this sonnet’s hyperbolic overtones throughout insinuate a deeper seated attachment to it: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”. This is the opening line of the stanza and immediately we as readers are fed an amalgamation of superlatives describing the Windhover.
The speaker appears to have a fondness for the Windhover as his compounded alliteration of “dapple-dawn-drawn” creates a triple emphasis in regards to the Windhover’s prominence. Along with this triple emphasis comes the possibility of a triple ambiguity, with Hopkins creating three very different meanings; the ‘dappled dawn’ possibly tempting the falcon, the falcon being ‘drawn’ so the speaker is in awe of it, or that the ‘dappled falcon’ is in itself attracted by the prospect of dawn – Hopkins has deliberately left this as a circumlocution for the reader to interpret on their own accord.
Hopkins advocated that everything in the world consisted of distinctive features, known as the ‘inscape’. The inscape was bound together in a spiritually cohesive way, something which he called the ‘instress’. This, with Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and stressing of syllables replicates the natural rhythm of spoken word. As Cousins, A. D. (2011) argues, Hopkins’ sonnets adopt a “political or devotional form thought of most distinctively as the medium through which he conveyed his remarkable engagement with the natural world”, and this sentiment proves emblematic in the poem.
The standalone introductory epigraph, “To Christ our Lord” affiliates Jesus to the poem, and hence it is important to note that Jesus should be in the undertones of any interpretation. The speaker watches in admiration as he states “Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird. The achieve of, the mastery of the thing! ” – Hopkins’ natural imagery highlights the “mastery” of the Windhover against the formidable opposition of nature.
The “mastery” against natural elements portrays the Windhover as being in total control, yet it could also mirror Hopkins’ own inspiration and courage, in trying to “rebuff” the big winds in his own life, heartened by the “mastery” of the bird. The term ‘mastery’ is an utmost superlative, which in this context signifies literally that the bird has conquered movement. Hopkins uses this term as opposed to a more subtle term such as ‘understood’ for instance, to mirror his appreciation for natural beings.
Although his rhetoric seems to glamorise the Windhover, his reference to other common creatures of nature; Kingfishers and Dragonflies in some of his other works underpin the notion that nature and natural beings are much more complex than they are given credit for. The regular rhyme scheme of the first stanza (“riding”, “striding”, “wing”, “swing” and “gliding”, “hiding”) mimics the majestic movement of the bird and the linear pattern of life; however the intermitting break between the final two stanzas transitions it from a romantic hymn, into a religious one.
Complemented with broken rhyme (dividing “king-dom” to rhyme with “wing”) and enjambment, Hopkins illustrates the unpredictability of the Windhover. Bristow, p. 174 elaborates that with such a style Hopkins created an “inscape within his distinctive theological poetics, from a system of heavily stressed syllables that gave more vocal weight to a poetic line than either English grammar or traditional scansion would usually allow”. Phrases such as “minion” and “kingdom” are quite archaic.
These terms have clerical undertones, and could allude to the lexical field of Christ being ‘the guider’; “But He [Jesus] said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). As well as this, the speakers’ anaphora of the term “morning” makes the entirety of the sentence quite repetitive. The terms become alliterative as Hopkins writes them in direct proximity of one another; “This morning morning’s minion,” this followed by the term “minion” instigates the bird as a servant of the “morning. While the speaker still shows a keen admiration for the Windhover, the fascination once prevalent at the beginning of the poem is now in favour of Christ.
After line 9 the poem permeates to the present tense, which could be metaphorical of Christ, and how he is alluded to in the Bible as being omnipresent. There is a new found empowerment for the speaker that is “a billion times told lovelier”. As Cousins, p. 220. suggests; “The Windhover celebrates the active principle that Hopkins called ‘instress’ of a world created and informed by a beneficent God.  Neologisms such as ‘lovelier’ romanticise this idea of nature – “Hopkins was occupied with the means of regarding language as a means of to praise God by imitating his creation” K. Jacob (1977), and this is implied through the anthromorphism of the Windhover. The way in which “he rung upon the rein,” whilst in “his ecstasy! ” elevates the Windhover in an equal light to humans. This stanza deviates almost to a stream of consciousness in which we as readers witness the speaker in a meditative state.
It appears as if the unconventional breaking of the sestet into two different parts lead to a climax – an epiphany. The poem builds up like a crescendo into a catharsis (non-literary, non-Aristotelian) of revelation, leaning more towards relieving Hopkins of some burden or anxiety. The epigraph shows the speaker as already being god-conscious. This awareness of God is clear from the offset; however, what initially started off as a mere thanksgiving to Jesus, has now become indoctrination with the concept of God. It can be argued all the same that the concluding lines of the poem are cathartic nevertheless.
The breaking out of the fire towards the end is reminiscent of Hopkins’ own heart being ‘hidden’. Indeed, the epiphany all along could be that his own fires will now ‘break out’. Hopkins felt poetry should not be attributed to personal goals, and in his capacity of a priest dedicated to God, he felt it was his duty to rebut individual desires. “AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion times told lovelier, more dangerous. ” – This could be reason as to why Hopkins deviates away from the conventional sonnets of intimate love, and instead focuses on his love for God.
The ‘fire’ is representative of life and personal desires, and Hopkins preaches of an obligation to God. Hopkins breaks away from the tradition of intimate love in this Petrarchan sonnet. Although the rhyme scheme used appears traditional, Hopkins adopts his own style, by deliberately ending every rhyme with “-ing”, so that within the ‘ABBA’ rhyme scheme, even the ‘A’ and ‘B’ rhyme with each other. Perhaps the elusive path of the Windhovers’ movement alludes metaphorically to Christ’s suffering. I see the poem overall as synthesising Hopkins’ doubts concerning his religious duty and poetic inclinations.
This may be considered a false dichotomy by many; yet the reading of the bible, the verse of the gospels, the language of the scripture and the performance of the sermon might all seem of one with the actions of a poet. Like how the Windhover ‘rebuffed the big wind,’ Jesus ‘rebuffed’ the Pharisees; “I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me. Where I am, you cannot come” (John 7:33). The fact that the speaker interlopes “ah my dear” during this recollection reaffirms how, he himself has personally afflicted by Christ’s suffering. The Windhover stands as a microcosm for Christ, and subsequently God.