A friend of TZF, who shares our affection for the kestrel, sent us this poem.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was an English poet and a Jesuit priest, whose life apparently reflected the potential tension between these two vocations. His poems, which are marked by religious themes and natural imagery, were written in secret, and none was published until well after his death. We found “The Windhover” to be a difficult poem to understand the first few reads; but it richly rewards further effort. It helps if you are fortunate enough to have a kestrel or two as a neighbor, and have witnessed their skill and beauty as they hover overhead.
”The Windhover” is out of copyright. This text is drawn from The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Third Edition) published by W. W. Norton & Company. The accompanying notes, which appear in the same volume, are copyrighted by W. W. Norton & Company, to whom we are grateful for permission to reprint them here.
TO CHRIST OUR LORD I caught this morning morning’s minion,2 king- dom of daylight’s dauphin,3 dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein4 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!5 AND6 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 sillion7 Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
1. Kestrel, called “windhover” because it
hovers in the air, head to wind. This poem, which Hopkins considered
“the best thing I ever wrote” (Letters), has been
variously explicated. The main thought seems to be that the ecstatic
flying of the bird stirs the poet’s heart (”in hiding,” for the
poet is a priest, with his heart hidden away from earthly things in the
service of God). In the combination of beauty, strength, and glory which
the poet sees in the bird, he sees an emblem of the beauty, strength, and
glory of Christ, whom he addresses as “my chevalier” (line 11).
It is “dangerous” to see these qualities in Christ, for we look
to Christ for lessons in humility and the enduring of suffering. But it is
“no wonder” (lines 12-14) that Christ’s humility and suffering
are bound up with His glory and pride; many things include their
opposites; “sheer plod” can make the ploughshare shine, as it
cuts its furrow, and a black coal in a fire can fall over and break and
reveal its red-hot interior, its “gold-vermilion” gashes
suggesting both beauty and pride and Christ’s wounds and