"The Windhover"

An Essay By Ben // 2/13/2003

As some of you may know, I am doing my junior project on Gerard Manley Hopkins. What is junior project? It's a time when you, as a student, choose one person from your major (a poet for me since I'm a literature major) and focus on him or her all semester. Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet from Victorian times, although his poetry is usually placed among the moderns. He was always a poet, from birth till death. However, he gave up writing for seven years directly after he became a Jesuit priest. Almost all of the poetry we have comes after those seven years. His poetry is always filled with rich piety, with what Catholics would call a "Sacramental Vision" - in other words, with a vision that everything images and reflects God and the grace-filled gifts he gives.

This is the first explanation I've written up for a Hopkins' poem. "The Windhover" is written in a meter Hopkins called "sprung" rhythm, which is rarely used in poetry these days or in his day. Sprung rhythm is too difficult to explain right now, however, you should know that it is based upon the natural stresses of normal speech and has close links to Old English. Hopkins does not want readers as much as he wants listeners. He wanted us to listen to his poetry with our ear, understand it with our ear. So, for the true effect of "The Windhover" I order you to turn off the music and read the poem out loud! Listen to the sounds the first time, and then once more listen to the meaning. Pay attention to punctuation....

Air spiked with wind, the world hidden in dark... the sun will soon rise. Wet browns and greens appear before the gold of light; the glow spreads tenderly to touch the land. And we see a poet walking in this dim among fields and hills. How long has he been out? We wonder. But now he slows his steps, stops himself, and looks up - there's movement in the sky...

"I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin" Hunted by the eye and heart, captured for a moment, the bird is the minion - the closest follower and dependent - of morning itself. He appears with the morning, but he comes in the half-light of night. As daylight's dauphin (an heir to monarchy), he is the darling of dawn, the inheritor of light.

"dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" Hopkins capitalizes "Falcon" in order to draw our attention to his importance. And, he is not any falcon: he is a falcon drawn to the dapple-dawn. "Dappled" means mottled or spotted. Hopkins uses the word "dappled" often in his poetry. I think it is a word that for him implies wildness and abundance in nature. Here, the word calls to mind a dawn sky of various colors, perhaps spotted with clouds.

"in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding high there" As any falcon should, he rides the rolling, steady wind and keeps level, steady air beneath his wings. Dawn provides its own difficulties for him, however. As Schoder, S.J. writes, "the air at dawn is commonly rough and boisterous, since the growing heat of the sun stirs currents of warm rising air while the colder portions rush in to take up the vacated place." Still, the falcon strides the air, implying that he has a sure step and a motive for movement.

"how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy!" The word "rung" is an old and rare technical term from falconry meaning "of a hawk: to rise spirally in flight." Our falcon circles the air upon the rein of a wimpling wing. His flight is reined in much as a knight would rein in his horse. The wing does the reining, and its feathers wimple, or fold and ripple, to produce the graceful spiral in flight. He is an animal at the height of his glory and grace. He is the Christ performing beautiful action and challenging the poet to follow Him to heroic heights. He is a hero; to see him is a revelation that "spirited action is a key to happiness" (Schoder, S.J.). How admirable to understand the falcon is in 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." Ceasing to circle, the falcon turns outward and down in a graceful swoop. The path is like an ice skater's heel which sweeps across the ice on a bow-bend or figure "8" turn. Both skater and falcon glide atop their support (be it ice or wind) and control it with the utmost art. Hopkins reports that "the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind." The falcon, so small compared to the wind, uses the wind now in order to rebuff, deny its direction. By hurling himself downward the falcon has gained victory.

"My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, --the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!" Up until this line it has been all bird; the poet has been too taken by the vision to remember himself. But now he exclaims that a bird could so stir his heart in hiding. A bird has wakened his heart and brought his heart back to him - back into the light which it has hid from. The achievement and mastery of the bird call his heart out of hiding toward the challenge of the falcon.

"Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here buckle!" The poem does not make sense unless we properly understand this sentence as a command. The poet calls out to all that has inspired him: the powerful beauty, the valor and action of the falcon. He calls all that challenges him: the air, the pride (or natural dignity and purpose of the falcon), and the feathery plumes. He tells them to "here buckle!" "Buckle" means "to prepare self for a contest or undertaking; hence to apply self with vigor to a task; to come to close quarters, grapple, engage." Hopkins seems to write, then: here, here in my heart, come down to the chase, gird yourself in readiness, grapple and engage, transform this heart of mine!

"AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion times lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!" Instantly, it seems, the poet's heart shares in what his eyes have seen. "AND" shows that this is a result of his asking. It also communicates the transforming moment. Now, what was great in nature, once entered into man, becomes a billion times lovelier. His heart, roused by the falcon, spouts fire. The falcon, as an image of Christ, has entered into his heart; the Holy Spirit radiates out. But even as a majestic animal the falcon has brought about something far more majestic in the interior man. Being so great, so precious a gift, this holy zeal is also more dangerous, more delicate to a misguided will and more quick to charge him guilty of ill-use. Furthermore, his task in life has become more dangerous than rebuffing wind. His heart is a chevalier, a noble man of action, for whom there is only one thin, perilous path to walk.

"No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine" We know the wonder of the falcon; we know that the poet's request to be filled by the falcon is answered and that his heart sends out flames. Yet, now the poet says it is no wonder. Why? The answer is that it is wonderful, but it is not strange. It is a law of life. For this same reason "sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine." The plough shines when it is put to use in the act of plodding down the sillion. "Sillion" is an archaic spelling of "selion," which means the "ridge or strip of land between furrows dividing plots in the open field system" (Schoder, S.J.). So, simply by work the tool is made to shine. Hopkins undoubtedly saw himself as a tool in the hands of God. His heart is beautiful whenever he performs his art, which, unlike the exterior beauty of gliding on wind, makes him a billion times lovelier within. The implication is this: Christ is beautiful in nature when we find nature free to act in its own abundant ways, but He is far more beautiful in the hearts of men when they perform their natural work and vocation. The fire in the poet's un-hid heart will continue by and through his ordinary work.

"and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion." Hopkins ends with another example of something we need not wonder at. Dying embers from a fire, when they fall or crack open, let out a gold, red and orange glow. Here, instead of becoming beautiful by work, the object is shown to radiate in destruction just before death. In the same way, the human heart is shown to become radiant in sacrifice and death. The crucifixion comes to mind, when Christ fell (hurled himself down against the big wind) carrying the cross and allowed himself to receive a spear wound from which blood and water flowed. The golden reds and oranges that end the poem call us back to the rising sun and dawning sky that must frame the falcon in his victorious flight.

Chevalier, minion, dauphin - these words bring to mind knights and kingdoms and olden times. It is to the kingdom of God that Hopkins directs our eyes. It is to Christ the King, who rides the wind and calls our hearts to do likewise. The poet feels himself called to everything the falcon performs, does, and is in his natural flight. Hopkins calls the Christ he sees in nature into himself, and he consecrates himself to Christ by asking Christ to come. He also consecrates himself by writing the poem (this explains the subtitle). As a result, he feels the ecstasy of being a knight who serves the greatest of kings. By the end of the poem he has refined this ecstatic feeling into something more subtle and steady by realizing that it will only be in daily work, total sacrifice, and opposition that his heart will hover in the early hours and rebuff the wind. It is the shape of the cross that the falcon makes when it spreads its wings over the world.


I received much guidance in this analysis of the poem in reading an essay entitled "What does 'The Windhover' mean?" written by Raymond V. Schoder, S.J. and appearing in Immortal Diamond, edited by Norman Weyand, S.J..


Wind Hover

Well, Ben, my heart was stirred when I read your essay. Thiry years ago, when I was 21, I wrote my thesis for my degree on The Windhover. Yesterday, I read the poem at a poetry reading and was shocked by how much it still has the power to move me. A billion times read and more lovely each time. Filled too with things I didn't spot the last time I read it. Would you believe that only yesterday I noticed that the falcon would be shaped like a cross - and you got it straight away. Well done!

What a wonderful poem - it really does capture the heart.

Liz R

Anonymous | Mon, 01/14/2008


I love it Ben!

Sarah | Mon, 01/14/2008

"Sometimes even to live is courage."

Blogging away!


Thanks so much for this.
I was struggling to get to grips with this poem and you have elucidated it perfectly. You really walked me through it!

One alternate idea you might like to consider:
in the second tercet, "sheer plot makes plough down sillion/Shine", apparently the sillion (rather than the plough) shines in low light (here dawn sunlight) after it has been ploughed. In which case, you could see this as meaning that if you work hard, and plough yourself and your character, you will shine in God's eyes.

see www.farm-direct.co.uk/farming/procedures/ploughing/gmh.html

Anonymous | Sun, 02/17/2008

The Windhover

Thank you, Ben, for your wonderful elucidation of this breathtaking poem. I do not have a degree in literature, but my husband (who is a billion times more literate than I) introduced this poem to me years ago, as he believed it to be the most beautiful poem in the English language. All I knew when he first read it to me was that I had heard glorious music. That was when the world of poetry first opened up to me (having been instructed by less-than-inspired teachers in high school).

My husband pointed out, of course, the rich alliteration, the rhymes and the fact that it is a sonnet.

I'm wondering about another way of looking at the choice of the word "buckled." There are two contrasting meanings of the word: connecting and collapsing (as buckling one's knees). The former suggests that all the forces bind together to create a magnificent and powerful whole. The latter implies a surrendering of the parts, allowing for the consuming fire created by this spectacle, as in the believer's surrendering to Christ and the spiritual fire that then engulfs the Christian. Since one of Hopkin's great gifts was his ability to create ambiguity in double meanings, I think this might be fitting.

At any rate, to be trite, this poem is the gift that keeps on giving. I will never tire of reading it silently, out loud, or hearing it read.

Bravo, to you, Ben, for a quality of work that belies your years. Would that my mind had been as subtle at your age!


Anonymous | Sat, 10/25/2008

Thank you :)

Your essay has proved very helpful in my understanding of this poem! Thanks very much and well done

Anonymous | Sun, 09/27/2009

Ben..... i m doing my masters

Ben..... i m doing my masters in literature and was posed with a really difficult assingment regarding Windhover. ur essay saved my life.....it is perfect.

Anonymous | Wed, 11/04/2009

Awsome analysis, I never

Awsome analysis, I never realised the part about the fire, but its an awesome take. I've always thought the blue bleak embers was describing the horizion just before sun rise, And the gash, gold vermillion symbolism of the sun rising, Hence it shows the complete resurection of jesus christ (including the resurection). But easily one of the best analysis' of this poem on the web

Anonymous | Mon, 11/16/2009

The plough

Nice Ben.  I have heard that a plough can send up sparks as it goes down the furrow.  So that would reduce the poem to 2 essential images, falcon=Christ and plough=man.  Contrasted and also linked through the fire: embers trope. 


Anonymous | Mon, 06/14/2010


Thanks, Ben, and others on this thread. I was sent to this poem by a hawkwatcher, and I leave it more literate due to your thought, care and passion.

I find the ambiguity suggested by another here completely plausable (and see with both the work and the plow shining in the low light). I think the Romantics would have us be comfortable with both readings as parts of the truth contained/revealed by the poem. AND in ourselves.





Anonymous | Fri, 11/05/2010


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