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The Windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins
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.

This sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins pushes the boundaries. I think it comes about as close to cinematography as words can get: Hopkins describes the motion of a windhover (a kestrel) and how the bird hovers, watching for its prey, with brilliant detail and observation of the natural world. But, as usual in his poetry, Hopkins doesn’t just describe. The rhythms of the language and the long lines of the first part of the poem recreate the motion of the bird, hovering on the air, riding the wind. From the very beginning, we know this bird more than a bird: the windhover is “morning’s minion,” “kingdom of daylight dauphin,” a prince, a “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon.”
The poet himself is very much present in the poem, which begins “I caught.” The poet did not “catch” the windhover, of course; he saw it. But, as one commentator has observed, this is not a poem about birdwatching!  Witnessing the windhover was an event for him: “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” It’s a thread through Hopkins’ poems:  the experience of joy at witnessing something, or someone, doing what they were made to do.
In the second part of the sonnet, there is a dramatic shift, both in the windhover’s flight and in the poetic language. As the windhover suddenly dives for its prey, language seems to fail and we get a staccato series of words: “Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” The windhover’s flight was beautiful, but its dive is magnificent: “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” The last lines of the poem use two unusual images to reflect on this explosion of beauty in the bird’s dive—seemingly dead embers, when they fall from the grate, burst open to reveal the “gold-vermillion” that still burns within. The same sense is evoked in the line “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine.” As a farmer has explained in a commentary on this poem, “When freshly cut a plastic soil with a high clay content does take on a sheen and, from a distance, the whole field may gleam for a while in low sunshine.” Only when cut open does the soil shine.
And that’s where the subtitle comes in: “To Christ our Lord.” Is the poem dedicated to Christ—or addressed to Christ? I think it’s both. There’s a little detail in the last lines of the poem that I think is worth pointing out. Who is Hopkins talking to when he says “blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, / Fall, gall themselves”?  That phrase, “ah my dear,” echoes a famous poem by George Herbert, a favorite of Hopkins. In “Love (III),” Herbert addressed Christ with those same words:  “ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.” And in that poem, too, there is a wistful sadness at what this dear Christ has undergone for our sake.
For Hopkins, the windhover is an image of Christ. The bird is the master of the wind, but in its plunge, its greatest beauty and power is released. This is Christ at Easter: he descends to the very depths, and in rising is “a billion times told lovelier.” Happy Easter!




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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