Last night I returned to Manhattan from a long weekend in Vermont. I struggled to drift off to sleep because of an indelible image of a stately bird of prey high in the bare boughs of a tree against a crisp, blue sky stuck in my mind. This is a common sight for a Vermonter; I have probably seen it twenty or thirty times while traveling from Burlington to a nearby mountain. In all likelihood, it was just a Red-Tailed Hawk I saw (a bird whose plumage is similar to the kestrel). But this time it was more; it was the representation of the beauty and power of nature I had failed to appreciate when there and have continuously longed for since moving to New York. Beneath these thoughts that busied my mind while away, was Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ (1877).
A windhover is a kestrel, a small falcon that hovers in midair while searching for prey. The bird—figured here as the prince of daylight—is spotted, drawn to dawn, and hovering in a thermal or current of air. The bird then begins to ascend slowly: ‘how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing / In his ecstasy.’ This imagery is, I believe, the most important part of the poem. ‘Rung’ is a term in falconry meaning to ascend in a spiral motion. ‘Wimpling’ here has a double meaning. The simple meaning is rippling, meaning the wing’s plumage undulates against the wind. However, a wimple is also a headdress that covers the head, neck, and cheeks of nuns, pressing against the temple and keeping the hair in place. The hovering bird finds a literal balance between the liberating air and the friction inherent in his pursuit, i.e. the thermal. Like a wimpled nun, the bird is at once elated and at once restricted by the very nature of that elation. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, torn between his religious life and his poetry. He admits that his ‘heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’ His heart in hiding, or his passion, is searching for a ‘bird,’ a state that would allow him to master both his callings at once.
The bird spots its prey and begins a rapid descent by buckling its wings: ‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume here / Buckle!’ In the morning-sun, the spotted bird seems to become aflame, an image likely taken from another of his poems ‘God’s Grandeur’: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.’ (In a note Hopkins writes, ‘I mean foil in the sense of leaf or tinsel…. Shaken goldfoil gives off broad glare like sheet lightning….’) After the second stanza, Hopkins awakes to the ubiquitous beauty of nature. He says that even a plowed furrow (‘sillion’) shines in this way, likely due to the shimmering minerals the plow unearths. And embers, seemingly about to go out and giving off nothing particularly brilliant (‘blue-bleak’) fall to the ground and open up, revealing inside ‘gold-vermillion.’ The bleak ember appears to be a metaphor for the heart or soul in hiding that, after witnessing the wonder of nature, gashes open and reveals its true, passionate, blazing fire.
‘The Windhover’ is dense with intense language that mirrors the epiphanic reawakening to the wonders of nature. The meter and language are titillating, adding to the feeling of ecstasy felt by the speaker in the poem and so this poem should be read aloud for full effect.
Here’s the poem.
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.