by Carol Rumens
This time, Hopkins’s astonishing control of his wildly experimental form is as awe-inspiring as its subject matter
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “The Windhover” in May, 1877. He had been a student at St Bueno’s Theological College for three years, and this was a productive period: the year of “God’s Grandeur”, “Spring” and “The Starlight Night”, among others. “The Windhover” is the most startlingly experimental of this gorgeous tranche of sonnets. Hopkins seems at ease, fully in control of the energies of his sprung rhythm and effortlessly folding the extra-metrical feet he called outrides (see line two, for example) into the conventional sonnet form. He recognised his own achievement, and, sending a revised copy to his friend Robert Bridges, declared that this was the best poem he’d ever written.
Much discussed and interpreted, “The Windhover” plainly begins with, and takes its rhythmic expansiveness from, a vividly observed kestrel. That the bird is also a symbol of Christ, the poem’s dedicatee, is equally certain. Perhaps too, its ecstatic flight unconsciously represents for Hopkins his own creative energy. When he exclaims “How he rung upon the rein…” his image might extend to the restraints and liberations of composition. The phrase means to lead a horse in a circle on the end of a long rein held by its trainer, and it certainly makes a neat poetic metaphor.
What a marvellous sentence Hopkins sets soaring across the first seven lines of the octet: I particularly like those cliff-hanger adjectives summoned “in the riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air”. The diction throughout is rich and strange: “wimpling” (rippling and pleating), “sillion” (a strip of land between two furrows), “the hurl”, “the achieve”. There are resonant ambiguities: “buckle” for example could be imperative or indicative, and it could mean any of three things: to prepare for action (an archaic meaning), to fasten together, or to bend, crumple and nearly break (“buckled like a bicycle wheel” as William Empson remarked when analysing the poem in Seven Types of Ambiguity).
An early reminder that we’ll be celebrating the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins on Thursday, June 23. Post your favourite Hopkins’ poem for reading and discussion on the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.