Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Windhover

As promised, a real live English language Italian sonnet. Of course, I have to admit I am most fascinated by sonnets that push the boundaries of the form, & this one—even tho written in the late 19th century—certainly does that.

“The Windhover” was written by British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, an important precursor or bridge from 19th century poetry to the modernist era & beyond. Tho his poems are quite different than Emily Dickinson’s, he shares this precursor role with her, as he also shares that fact that few of his poems were published in his lifetime.

For those of you who don’t know, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest (a convert from the Anglican church), & a man with a most complicated biography. He was prone to massive fits of depression, & may have suffered from what we now know as manic depression. It appears that he also was uncomfortable in his sexual orientation; it is known that he developed a passion for Digby Mackworth Dolben, a classmate at Eton (also poet Robert Bridges’ cousin); at a certain point, Hopkins Anglican confessor forbade him to see Dolben in person, tho Hopkins was still allowed to keep up a correspondence with the other man.

Thru all his personal turmoil, Hopkins was able to write some truly unique & beautiful poetry, practically all of which deals with religious themes & imagery. He was fond of using the sonnet form, & he did so to great effect. Hopkins’s sonnets are among the most pyrotechnic in the language (& one doesn’t usually think “fireworks” when one thinks “sonnet”). In “The Windhover,” Hopkins observes a falcon hovering in the wind, as tho he controlled it; in the sestet the falcon becomes an image of Christ, whose mastery is “a billion/Times told lovelier, more dangerous….”

As is always the case in Hopkins’ poetry, the rhythm is very strong; he was interested in both Anglo-Saxon poetry & speech rhythms, & tried to incorporate these stress patterns into a system he called “sprung rhythm.” Note the diacritical marks on "sheer plod" in the 12th line; Hopkins frequently used such marks to indicate stress patterns. It’s also noteworthy in this particular sonnet that while the rhyme pattern of the octave is 1A, 2B, 3B, 4A, 5A, 6B, 7B, 8A, there is a strong echo between the rhyming sounds “ing” (A) & “iding” (B).

Hope you enjoy this truly wonderful poem.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

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.


  1. I can't remember the name of the instrument Yeats played when he recited his poetry. Rhythm in poetry? Yes please! Thanks for this.

  2. Hi Reya:

    Yeats was a very rhythmic reader of his own verse, yes. & yes, I too love the strong rhythms!

    Thanks, as always.

  3. I confess my first reaction to this poem was Whoa~ alliteration gone wild! (morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn) but Hopkins's diacritical marks won me over. Having sung Anglican chant, I appreciate them. You know where you are with diacritical marks. ;>) So I read the poem aloud - and loved it.

  4. Hi Sandra:

    In baseball there are always players about whom you say-- you'd never teach someone to hit by imitating his batting stance-- & I think Hopkins is like that. He used these strong rhythms & alliteration very naturally, but to try to imitate them-- well most folks would just shipwreck in a welter of alliteration. But you're right on about reading him out loud-- very fun to do so!

  5. Timely, John. I was just reading a review of a new book about Hopkins in The New Yorker. Here's an excerpt:

    Intriguing fellow.

  6. Oh, this was great! I have a book of Hopkins upstairs in my bookcase that I've not even cracked open. This is the second reference to him that I've come across this week on the blogs - the other was on Rachel Fox's, More About the Song (see here: I shall have to crack it now, for sure. I adore the rhythms. Thanks for this.

    Oh, and I want now to get a pair of something - birds, degus etc. and call them Digby and Hopkins.


  7. Hi Don & Kat:

    Interesting about the Hopkins' coincidences-- yes, Don, I expect his biography would be quite interesting.

    Digby & Hopkins indeed!


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