Critical Appreciation of The Windhover

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      The original impulse to write the poem The Windhover must have come from Hopkins’ visual delight in the falcon’s flight. According to the poet, then, the mortal beauty of the falcon, the energy and valor and pride, will be a “billion times told lovelier” when apprehended as the outward and visible sign of the creative force, God. The total poem is a declaration of Christian purpose and a triumphant confirmation of the poet’s personal faith that was his very existence. The poem has a significant symbolism. Hopkins here seems to be saying: “May the human equivalents of this bird’s heroic graces and beautifully disciplined physical activity be combined, and brought to a much higher spiritual activity, in my own being, just as they were once so transmuted in Christ (“O my Chevalier”)

      The poem is impressive in every respect. But the ordinary student of literature cannot but feel bewildered by the variety of interpretations the poem lends itself it.

      The whole sonnet is charged with a strong feeling of admiration for the falcon’s qualities, this feeling becomes even more intense when the poet tells us that his heart “stirred for a bird—the achieve the mastery of the thing!” In the same mood of joyous admiration, the poet enumerates the attributes of the bird—“brute beauty and valor and act—oh, air pride, plume”. The exclamatory “Oh”! represents a further deepening of the emotion. In the sound of the verb “caught” in the opening phrase, “I caught” there is already something arresting. It is characteristic of Hopkins’s condensed style that he uses “caught” to mean “caught sight of”. The object comes not immediately but at the end of the series of epithets, as in some royal proclamation of medieval pageantry. First comes the title “morning’s minion”, or morning’s favorite, with overtones of a royal favorite. Then follows the title “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin” or crown prince and heir to the French throne, the source of medieval chivalry. Finally, the bird himself is introduced with a capital “F” to suggest a person. But there is another attribute of the bird: he is “dapple-dawn-drawn”, that is, drawn from his nest at this early hour by the dappled eastern sky. The imagery and the original use of language here are noteworthy. Hopkins visualizes the falcon in terms of a rider on his horse. This image is rich in associations as it is reminiscent of the words of another Dauphin, in Shakespeare’s historical play Henry V. The poet does not look at the bird with an utter detachment. While the bird has every right to give itself airs take pride in its mastery, and plume itself in its skill, for himself the poet now recognizes a far wider possibility of mastery and achievement open to him as a man, even as his human nature is far nobler than the animal nature of the bird. The poet here tells his heart to “buckle”, to submit humbly to Christ.

      In the last three lines of the sonnet, two more images are presented. The first is that of a plow share which comes out shining from the muddy earth of the furrow it has just been plowing. The second image is that of dying embers of a fire in the act of galling themselves, breaking open and revealing the hidden glory or gold vermilion of fire. Although the whole sonnet is charged with a strong feeling of admiration for the falcon's qualities, this feeling becomes even more intense when the poet tells us that his heart “stirred for a bird—the achieve of the mastery of the thing!”

      Animal beauty and courage and vigor, the use of the air, the birds’ majesty and lovely appearance all come together and the poet suddenly perceives Christ’s presence in the bird; Christ the Chevalier, who is a billion times lovelier and more terrifying. The perception has the suddenness and startling power of an electrical discharge. Some critics suggest that through the poet’s recognition of Christ’s presence the whole landscape is suddenly seen to be charged with his presence, as in Hurrahing in Harvest. Other readings interpret ‘buckle’ as the immediate reduction in significance of the natural order when the supernatural is perceived, and a metaphorical bowing of this to the greater majesty.

      The final tercet has received numerous interpretations. ‘No wonder of it’ may mean that it is unsurprising that Christ can be perceived in the majestic falcon since the plowing of a small piece of arable land can rid a plow of winter rust so that it reflects the brilliant sun. If ‘plow down’ is taken as an adjective meaning ‘plowed down’ the phrase may also describe the almost metallic sheen of sunlight on upturned clods of earth. The dull grey embers that fall in a grate sometimes split to reveal glowing yellow-red. These images of light in unexpected places suggest Christ’s presence.

      Alternatively, the ‘Sheer plod’ has suggested to readers the daily discipline of the religious orders that makes the priest receptive to any appearance of Christ. The release of the light and warmth of the embers, which requires the destruction of the ember, has likewise suggested Christ’s sacrifice. Both the sheer plod and the life-giving abnegation have been seen as examples of the type of life the priest regards as exemplary for himself.

      The poem suffers from the defects of oddity and a certain obscurity in the expression of ideas. In the first place, there is ambiguity in the phrase “My heart in hiding”. Why “in hiding”! Several explanations have been offered by critics but none of them really seems to justify the expression “in hiding”. In this phrase the poet may be thinking of himself watching the bird from a place of hiding on the ground below; or of his heart hiding inside his body; or else of his situation as a man leading a life at St. Beuno’s college, hidden from others. Then it is not clear to whom the sestet of this sonnet is addressed: whether to his own heart, to the falcon, or to Christ. At least one critic is of the view that Hopkins is addressing all the three, for they are inseparable: in achieving that state of correspondence where the bird is recognized as the moral representation of the divine presence the poet has achieved that perfect condition of “Christ being me and me being Christ”. The three words “here/Buckle!/And” have also been subjected by critics to a bewildering diversity of interpretation, the capitalization of AND being rather mysterious. As for the oddities, the word “achieve” has been used to mean “achievement” the word “act” has been used in the Aristotelian sense to mean energeia” or force; the word “sillion” is most unusual; the word “gall” and “gash” used with embers would not easily be understood. The language of the poem has no doubt been handled in an original novel manner but this originality can hardly please the reader where every word has to be explained by a scholar.

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