The Windhover – Gerard Manley Hopkins invites a spiritual discovery


Recently, a student asked if I could suggest a poem that might help explain the idea of spiritual discovery. She wanted to have another piece of related material to cover different aspects of the Area of Study: Discovery according to the ‘spice’ acronym:

Spiritual   Physical   Intellectual   Creative   Emotional

I thought immediately of a poem that I have enjoyed since reading and discussing the Windhover as a teenager at high school. This text shares Hopkins’ joy at watching a kestrel flying and explicitly linking the beauty of nature with God, his Christian creator. Consider including these ideas when writing your analytical paragraphs:

  • the title is a direct reference , or alternative name, for the kestrel which implies the energy and actions of this bird
  • the subtitle or dedication clearly positions us to respect Hopkins’ praise for Christ
  • the first person perspective reminds us of the individuality inherent in poetry and asks that the reader share Hopkins’ experience
  • the form is sonnet, where the first eight lines describe the majesty of the kestrel’s flight, and the subsequent six lines reflect on the power of Christ and nature’s splendour
  • Hopkins uses interesting words and word combinations, with effective punctuation to mimic the bird’s flight and natural speech, as if the viewer is struggling to describe this awesome spectacle
  • which other techniques can you identify and link to discovery?

Ultimately, we are invited to discover the wonder of a natural event – that of a small falcon hovering with rapidly beating wings while searching for prey. We are also implored to acknowledge the power of a god that created such an awesome creature, or, at the very least, discover a specific moment in nature.

The Windhover
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.

Read an analysis by Carol Rumen in the regular ‘Poem of the Week‘ column from The Guardian.

Advice from The English Studies Book: An Introduction to Language, Literature and Culture by Rob Pope (second edition 2002: Routledge)

Tips on reading: This can be a perplexing poem until you get into the swing of sounding it out loud and relish the sense of French-derived words: ‘minion’ – darling; ‘dauphin’ – prince in waiting; ‘chevalier’ – knight; ‘sillion’ – furrow. the two marks over ‘sheer’ and ‘plod’ in line 12 are Hopkins’s indications of especial stress, though weighing where to place the stresses is a major part of the poem’s overall challenge. A windhover is a kestrel, a small falcon that hovers then suddenly swoops.

While studying at Oxford, Hopkins (1844-89) was greatly influenced by the aesthetic ideas on sensuous beauty of his tutor, Walter Pate, and the conversion to Catholicism of his mentor, Cardinal Newman. Hopkins subsequently became a Jesuit priest, writing but not publishing poetry; first publication was in 1918, long after his death. The heavily alliterative, *stressed verse-form is partly modelled on early English poetic forms and the wrenching of sense is an attempt to register what Hopkins calls ‘inscape’. this is a sensuously intense realisation of the ‘thisness’ of a specific event or identity, ultimately leading to an acute apprehension (‘instress’) of God in all things. Hopkins subtitle for this poem is To Christ our Lord.

  • image of common kestrel in flight from Wikimedia Commons

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