Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) was an English poet, Roman Catholic convert, and Jesuit priest, whose posthumous 20th-century fame established him among the leading Victorian poets. His experimental explorations in prosody (especially sprung rhythm) and his use of imagery established him as a daring innovator in a period of largely traditional verse.
. . .Hopkins is full of pitfalls for the unwary. There is a double difficulty: his Catholic beliefs and experience on one hand; his individual use of the resources of English on the other, to say nothing of his irrelevant theory of prosody. The non-Catholic reader—especially the non-Christian reader—is timid or hostile in the presence of Hopkins' faith and doctrine. He is beset with "mnemonic irrelevance" and stirred to a thousand acts of undemanded vigilance and depreciation which inevitably distort the pattern and texture of the poems.
For the Catholic reader Hopkins has, understandably, a great deal of prestige value. Long accustomed to a defensive position behind a minority culture, English and American Catholics have developed multiple mental squints. Involuntarily their sensibilities have been nourished and ordered by a century or more of an alien literary and artistic activity which, faute de mieux, they still approach askance. However, their intellectual distrust in the presence of, say, the emotional chaos of Shelley or Browning has not in the least prevented the assimilation of the vision of those poets. (One might add that it has not in the least prevented them from hailing as "Catholic poetry" the febrile immaturities of Francis Thompson and Joyce Kilmer.)
Thus there was no Catholic magazine which would accept any poem of Hopkins in his lifetime. With Bloomsbury's sudden acclaim of Hopkins as a major poet, however, Catholics were caught off-guard. They hastened to enshrine but not to understand him. Somewhat inconsequentially they have begun to feel at home in the present world of art because "their" poet is a big gun on the literary front. That is the catch. The Catholic reader comes to Hopkins with a mechanism of sensibility which came off the line in 1850. His sensibility has been unmodified by the impact of Baudelaire, Laforgue, Pound, or Eliot. Bloomsbury was at least readied for Hopkins by these and The Seafarer. But the Catholic assumes his proprietary manner on the strength of doctrinal affinity alone. With equal justification the professors of Anglo-Saxon might have staked out an exclusive claim in Hopkins. Insentience or modesty has prevented them so far; or is it simply that they are incapable of seeing that the work of Hopkins is almost the sole civilized fruit of their brain-starved plodding?
Before there can be any basis for Catholic complacency in the presence of Hopkins we must explain our tardy recognition of him. Again, if Catholic doctrine made Hopkins a major poet, why aren't there more like him? All, I think, that need be said of this peculiarly Catholic pitfall is that some knowledge (the more the better) of Catholic doctrines and Scotist philosophy is needed for the full elucidation, though not for the immediate enjoyment, of Hopkins. Such knowledge, however, will never reveal his poetic excellence. The Catholic reader has the advantage only in that he is disposed to give Hopkins a chance. And, of course, he is not inclined to urp with Bridges, when Hopkins speaks of the Virgin or the Trinity. The problem, in short, is much the same as that of reading, say, Dante or John Donne. The ancillary scholarly effort should, but seldom does, keep ever sharply focused the stereoscopic gaze at the work itself.
Before looking at "The Windhover," as our chosen text, let us consider the crux of Hopkins' sensibility—"inscape." It is the "fineness, proportion of feature" mastering the recalcitranc of matter which he saw everywhere in the world. It is the ontological secret:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.
Hopkins finds this Euclid peeping from the chaos of matter alike in the veins of a violet, the "roped" sides of a mountain, or the bright shoe on the anvil. (Note the precise yet witty implications of "forged feature" in this connection.) That Hopkins should take the further step of greeting Christ at such moments of natural perception should cause even the non-Catholic reader very little inconvenience, for the poet is making no pantheistic claims whatever:
Since, tho' he is under the world's splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed.
Hopkins is not a nature mystic at all, nor a religious mystic, either, but an analogist. By stress and instress, by intensity and precision of perception, by analogical analysis and meditation he achieves all his effects. His is literally a sacramental view of the world since what of God is there he does not perceive nor experience but takes on faith. It may sound at first strange to hear that Hopkins is not a mystic but an analogist. That he does not lay claim to a perception of natural facts hidden from ordinary men is evident in every line of description he ever wrote. As for religious experience, it is the same. Nowhere in his work does he draw on an experience which is beyond the range of any thoughtful and sensitive Catholic who meditates on his Faith. Let the authoritative statement of Jacques Maritain clarify this matter at once. He begins a chapter on "Experience Mystique et Philosphie" this way:
Nous entendrons ici le mot "experience mystique," que cela soit convenu une fois pour toutes, non pas en un sens plus ou moins vague (extensible à toutes sortes de faits plus ou moins mystérieux ou préternaturels, ou même à la simple religiosité), mais au sens de connaissance expérimental des profondeurs de Dieu, ou de passion des choses divines, menant l'âme, par une suite d'états et de transformations, jusqu'à éprouver au fond d'elle-même le toucher de la déité, et à "sentir la vie de Dieu." Les Degrés Du Savoir (Paris, 1935), pp. 489-490.
But there is nothing of this in Hopkins. He deals sensitively with the commonplaces of Catholic dogma in the order of Faith, and he records a vigorous sensuous life in the order of nature. Since for the agnostic no precision is possible in these matters, and all distinctions are nugatory, he will continue to call both Blake and Hopkins "mystical."
Hopkins looks at external nature as a Scripture exactly as Philo Judaeus, St. Paul, and the Church Fathers had done. Their views, which have never ceased to be current, though their prevalence has fluctuated, are summarily expressed by the conventional patristic divine, Jeremy Taylor:
Thus when [God] made the beauteous frame of heaven and earth, he rejoyced in it, and glorified himself, because it was the glasse in which he beheld his wisdom, and Almighty power.… For if God is glorified in the Sunne and Moon, in the rare fabric of the honeycombs, in the discipline of Bees, in the oeconomy of Pismires, in the little houses of birds, in the curiosity of an eye, God being pleased to delight in those little images and reflexes of himself from those pretty mirrours, which like a crevice in a wall thorow a narrow perspective transmit the species of a vast excellency: much rather shall God be pleased to behold himself in the glasses of our obedience….
Hopkins habitually shifts his gaze from the order and perspectives of nature to the analogous but grander scenery of the moral and intellectual order. And he does this methodically:
…O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
Or the book of nature provides parallel passages with the supernatural revelations of Scripture:
…For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
As the microcosm of man is a nobler, a more perfect mirror of God's beauty and grandeur, so Christ, as Taylor goes on to say in the same place, "was the image of the Divinity…designed from eternal ages to represent as in a double mirrour, not onely the glories of God to himself, but also to all the world; and he glorified God by the instrument of obedience, in which God beheld his own dominion.…" Hopkins freely employs these three traditional mirrors (physical, moral, divine) of God's beauty and grandeur, using them sometimes simply ("Pied Beauty"), doubly ("The Caged Skylark"), or triply ("The Wreck of the Deutschland"). Naturally, these combinations admit of infinite variations since the particulars reflected in each "mirror" can be chosen from a great store.
"The Windhover" exploits all three mirrors of God's grandeur.
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-vermillion.
The bird "literally" mirrors the physical order of subrational "valour and act." But, analogously, as "kingdom of daylight's dauphin," it mirrors Christ. As Hopkins transfers his gaze from the first mirror to the second, we see that his own heart is also a hidden mirror (moral obedience) which flashes to God the image not of "brute beauty and valour and act" but a "fire" which is "a billion times told lovelier"—the chevalier image of Christ. We can thus simply, and, I believe for the first time, fully explain the function of "here Buckle!" Rhetorically, fire bursts from Hopkins as he looks at the fiery falcon whose action mirrors the mastery of Christ over the world. Now, he says, let us take this mirror (St. Paul's "armour") and buckle it here in my hidden heart, raising the image of Christ in the bird to the image of Christ in the obedience and humility of the heart. Christ's fire will burst on and from the second mirror "a billion times told lovelier" than from the falcon. This is the basic structure of this image. The superstructure of its ambiguity will be shown later on. Hopkins would even seem to have this mirror mechanism in the forefront of his mind as he compares his obedient day-by-day plodding to the homely ploughshare whose polished surface is hidden in the earth ("my heart in hiding") but which imparts a sheen even to the mud and dirt which it turns up. (Compare with this "sheer plod" image "the jading and jar of the cart"—"Deutschland," stanza 27.)
To have seen the dialectic or mechanism of the poem is not, however, to have seen anything of what constitutes its dramatic action. In other words, we have yet to see that it is a poem at all. There is a logical movement which has been indicated. There is also dramatic surprise achieved by a striking peripateia. This happens when the ecstatic hyperboles of the octet are yet rendered trite by the merely homely images of the sestet. Moreover, while the sestet is in a lower key, befitting the change to the theme of humble obedience, it is more intense, fuller of compressed implication. Hopkins has Spiritual humility act out its easy victory over "brute beauty and valour and act." Yet this victory is not won by crushing "brute beauty" but by catching it to the hidden heart which reflects it back to God.
The assonance and alliteration in the first three lines perform just the opposite of their usual functions in Hopkins' verse—the opposite of "gall" and "gash" in the last line, for example. Here, in conjunction with the even phrasing, they convey the delicate poise, the hovering emphasis of the falcon's movements. The falcon is seen as a chevalier, a horseman glorying in the great power under him and the quick response to the rein as he sweeps "forth on swing." (The skate on ice image shifts the point of view only to stress the precision and sharply etched movements of the bird. Compare: "It is the forged feature finds me" in "Henry Purcell." "Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" also insists upon the etched quality of the scene. The bird is drawn to the light but it is also drawn, etched, against the dawn.)
To a member of a militant order whose founder was a Spanish soldier or chevalier, the feudal character of the opening imagery is quite natural. "Minion," "dauphin," "valour," "plume," and "buckle" alike evoke the world of dedicated knighthood and shining panoply of armor. Thus the mounted chevalier flashing off exploit as he "rung upon the rein" enables Hopkins later to reverse the situation with great dramatic effect in "sheer plod makes plow down sillion Shine." The paradox consists in the fact that Hopkins as lowly plowman following a horse flashes off infinitely more exploit than Hopkins the imagined chevalier.
More central still to the dramatic movement of the poem is the way in which the cavalier images of the octet are concentrated in "here Buckle!" Buckling is the traditional gesture of the knight preparing his armor for action. A buckler is the bright shield of defense bearing insignia, flashing defiance. (The relevance of the sense of "buckle" as "collapse" or "crumple" has often been debated in this context. It has been suggested that Hopkins, in shifting his point of view, here means that the sensuous beauty of the world is a feeble prop, that he is making a conventional renunciation of "mortal beauty" as dangerous to the spiritual life. But this is to ignore the dramatic development, to blur it with cliche. It ignores the excited emphasis of "here" at the end of the line and "Buckle!" at the beginning of the next. It is, of course, almost impossible not to accept these suggestions so long as the basic mirror images of his analogist vision are not grasped.) Whichever way one looks at this image the implication of shining brilliance, of enthusiastic gesture, is present. I have already said that "here" means "in the obedient and humble heart," and that "Buckle" means that the "brute beauty" of the bird as mirror of God's grandeur is to be transferred or flashed to the "heart in hiding," just as the burnished surface of the plow in action is hidden in the earth. The high-spirited but obedient heart of a man is a "billion Times" better a mirror of Christ the chevalier than is the mirror of the external world. "AND the fire that breaks from thee then" (note how the eager stress on "AND" serves to flash attention intensely on what follows as being an inevitable result) is ambivalent in suggesting both the fire and ecstasy which the poet has felt as he watched the bird as well as the much greater fire which Christ will flash on him and from him, and which will flame out at the world. The mirror of man's moral life can "give beauty back to God," the beauty of God's world, and in so doing it becomes the mirror in which (by the imitation of Christ) God can flash out more brilliantly. ("Give beauty back," as in a mirror, is also the theme of "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo," as the title suggests.)
Once it is seen that the shining armor of the falcon's imitation of Christ's mastery is to be buckled in the hidden heart of the poet it is easy to find other passages in Hopkins which show that this image obsessed him. In the sonnet to St. Alphonsus Rodriguez there is the same running image of military brilliance and valor:
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
The whole sonnet is helpful to an understanding of "Windhover." But there is especial relevance in the second line:
And those strokes that once gashed flesh or galled shield.
There is here a direct clue to the last lines of our poem:
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
"Gall" and "gash" are in both places associated with shield and mirror and flesh—mortified or obedient flesh, of course. The underlying image in these last three lines is that of mortal clay transformed. It is made to shine and to fructify by the humble service of the plough (the obedient will). The "blue-bleak" earth provides the transition to the embers covered with claylike ash. Just as "the fire that breaks from thee then" (after the mirror of mortal beauty has been buckled to the hidden heart) is not a fire produced by any direct action or valor, so the fire that breaks from the "blue-bleak embers" is not the effect of ethos but pathos, not of action but of suffering or patience. The true "achieve of, the mastery of the thing" from which flashes the most dangerous and daring exploit
dates from day
Of his going in Galilee
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Here again is the image of the fire in the hidden heart which evokes the "blue-bleak embers," and, which, as some have suggested, leads on to the image of the vermillion side of Christ on the Cross.
One might even suggest that as the ash-covered coals gash gold-vermilion when touched by the poker (spear), so when Hopkins "kissed the rod, Hand rather" ("Carrion Comfort"), he becomes a mirror of Christ, flashing gold-vermilion:
I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength,
Stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
Me? or me that fought him?
The crucial ambivalence which Hopkins stresses is owing to the double mirror image which he keeps always in mind. As a mirror of Christ he must imitate both the valor and also the obscure sufferings of Christ. He must overcome and be overcome at the same instant—at every instant. But this complexity does not exist in the mirror of mortal beauty, the "brute beauty and valour and act" which is a simple reflection of Christ's mastery but not of His suffering and love.
Familiarity with Hopkins soon reveals that each of his poems includes all the rest, such is the close-knit character of his sensibility. A relatively small number of themes and images—such is the intensity of his perception—permits him an infinitely varied orchestration. Thus it is really impossible to feel the full impact of "The Windhover" without awareness of the tentacles which its images stretch out into the other poems. To take once more the analogy of "sheer plod makes plough down sillion Shine," its paradox is brightly illuminated in the poem "That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire." Contemplating his "joyless days, dejection," "flesh fade, and mortal trash," he reflects that:
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
This "Jack, joke" plodding behind the plough makes the trash and mud of earth shine like diamond, "wafting him out of it." And diamond flashing from the silicates of the soil is also, once again, the mirror of Christ in the hidden and humble heart of mortal clay.
Another aspect of this analogy of the plough grinding through the gritty soil is seen in the last line of "Spelt from Sybil's Leaves":
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, thóughts agáinst thoughts in groans grínd.
This aspect of the plough and the soil is the more obviously dramatic one—immortal beauty won from the harshest dullest toil, suffering, and discipline.
An inevitable dispersal of attention has accompanied the above elucidation of this poem. But then only an oral reading with all the freedom and flexibility of spoken discussion can really point to the delicate interaction, at each moment of the poem, of all its cumulative vitality of logic, fancy, musical gesture.
"The Windhover" could never have become the richly complex poem it is if Hopkins had not tested and explored all its themes beforehand, in other poems. There is no other poem of comparable length in English, or perhaps in any language, which surpasses its richness and intensity or realized artistic organization. There are two or three sonnets of Shakespeare (for example, "They that have power to hurt" and "The expense of spirit") which might be put with Donne's "At the round earth's" for comparison and contrast with this sonnet. But they are not comparable with the range of the experience and multiplicity of integrated perception which is found in "The Windhover."