Tag Archives: Vermont

Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Windhover

dscf0043Last 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).

Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman ...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.

The Windhover

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.

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A Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’

snowA blizzard has begun. Their predictions were right but my vexation at having to reschedule a flight to Vermont subsided with that first sight of accumulation on the streets of Manhattan. I had hoped to experience the storm from some place of sylvan solitude; in lieu of drooping conifers and ivory fields, I turned to Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ (1921) and angled an IKEA chair toward the northeast window.

Since yesterday afternoon I have been mulling over how on earth I might follow the ‘The Broken Tower.’ Now it seems the obvious choice is Stevens. Crane and Stevens are both great 20th century American mystic poets. Both struggled intensely with the ideologies of a Judeo-Christian God and seemed to have favored in the end a form of Gnosticism, or what Stevens called ‘The Presence of an External Master of Knowledge.’ Put simply (something Stevens—and for that matter Crane—would not favor) it is a Oneness, a Oneness with nature, consciousness, all that mystic, Whitmanian jazz.

‘The Snow Man’ presents this sense of the unified whole brilliantly through the complete cohesion between form and content. Usually I would avoid this trope, however it is so well done in this poem that noted linguist Jay Keyser says it is the best short poem in the English language for this very reason. Personally, I feel that’s a stretch but it does accomplish that particular characteristic of great poetry better than any I can think of.

Wallace Stevens

The poem is a single sentence divided into syntactical units by semi-colons. As the poem is read and we arrive at the end of each unit, the mind renders the unit a completion. However each persistent ‘and’ necessitates the reassessment (the re-view) of what was read before and so through the apprehension of the unit, we try to reach the whole. In this way, reading ‘The Snow Man’ is in fact like watching a snowstorm: the eyes follow a portion of flakes down until they reach their supposed journey’s end, the eye then lifts, gathering another segment in its gaze and repeats in an attempt to witness the power of the storm. It is a wonderful analogy for the process of reading and re-reading—a necessary part of loving poetry.

More than this, the poem is the invitation to view things as they appear to you. This poem is more pertinent than ever in a world in which we take in information ceaselessly, clicking the shiny hyperlinks and formulating our opinions based not on the content of the page but the ads that flicker beside them or the inane comments that sit beneath. In the mystic tradition, the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’ is the void, the presence of absence denoted by the snow that seems to blot out the world by creating one anew. It is the everything out of nothing. The Snow Man sees things as they are because he is constantly reevaluating his position in relation to what is observed. He is aware that he is literally made up of the world that surrounds him—he truly has ‘a mind of winter,’ being a snowman, and knows that his presence in the world is directly affected by that which is outside of him and vice versa. The form and the content of the poem are entreating the reader to stop, pay attention to what they are reading, truly understand every aspect through reanalysis, see what is there and what is not and what is there because it is not there. It is asking you to understand your personal relation to the world and formulate your own opinions accordingly.

Here’s the poem.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.