A friend recently remarked, “I don’t like poems that you have to figure out.”  That friend is not alone.  Most people do not like puzzle-poems that are difficult to understand, that must be deciphered or interpreted, and such poems are a great frustration to many students of English literature.

I recently mentioned two such “difficult” poets:  Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins — the first Welsh, but writing in English, the second having spent some time in Wales and in learning Welsh, but also writing in English.  Both teeter on the edge of indecipherability, but unlike many “noted” poets of the latter half of the 20th century, neither topples over.  It was these later poets — after Thomas and Hopkins — with their seemingly meaningless strings of verbiage that put the public off poetry, so that today poetry — Aside from the works of more straightforward writers like Billy Collins — still is really alive for the general public only in the lyrics of songs for the most part, and few enough of those are worthwhile.

Today I want to talk about Gerard Manley Hopkins, that sad figure with his hidden glories, a man who, I think, lost himself in converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming a Jesuit; it seems to have made his life ever more miserable.  He was one of those remarkably sensitive souls who fall into astounding depths of depression, and his dull, uncreative life as a Jesuit did not help matters.

It is Hopkins who gives us one of the most affecting statements on the abyssal depths of depression and the feeling of hopelessness:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.  Hold them cheap
May who never hung there.  Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep.  Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

He is telling us that the mind has dark abysses that terrify the sensitive soul, that those who have not experienced these depths of depression really have no idea what it is like.  He tells us our small “durance,” the small period in which we last and live, or we can say our “endurance,” cannot cope with such depths of dismalness.  A wretched being so afflicted is served only by a kind of cold comfort amid a whirlwind of negativity, and that poor comfort is that life ends in death, and each day ends in sleep.  Not a great encouragement, and Hopkins, who suffered from terrible depression, obviously found little cheer in it.

When is the last time you heard someone use the word “durance”?  Perhaps never, and Hopkins has a predilection for such out-of-fashion and archaic words, which add to the difficulties of much of his poetry.  We find such obscure terms in one of his most famous poems, one which he thought perhaps his best.  It involves the poet at morning, watching a falcon hovering and swooping high in the sky.  The falcon hovers against a headwind while searching for prey, and when it finds a victim, it may plummet with incredible speed.  Because of its hovering against the wind, it is called a “windhover.”  Here is the poem:

THE WINDHOVER  (To Christ our Lord):

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom 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-vermilion.

“Good grief!” you may be saying.  How is one supposed to understand a poem featuring terms like “minion,” “dauphin,” and “chevalier,” and all of these assembled in odd grammatical phrasing?  Well, perhaps it is not quite so hopeless as it seems at first glance, but one must admit that Hopkins did not write for the masses.  He seems to have been very inward-turned in his notion of an audience for his verse, very ingrown.  But let’s see what we can make of it:

The Windhover

We know what that is now:  a kind of falcon that hovers against the wind, that swings in circles, swoops and dives through the air.

To Christ our Lord

Why the dedication?  Well, obviously Hopkins had become a Jesuit — a “religious” — but there is perhaps more to his dedication than appears at first glance.  We shall examine that possibility later in the poem.  Let’s look at it now, part by part:

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!

Hopkins is telling us that he saw (“caught”) a windhover in the dappled light of dawn.  He calls him “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin.”  Dauphin is a French term that meant the eldest son of the King of France; here we need regard it only as a title of nobility — like the lord of a domain.  So the windhover, we may say, is “lord of the morning”

He saw the falcon “in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding high there.”  The falcon was riding the gusts of steady air, high in the sky.

Hopkins remarks, “how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy!”   His use of the term “rung” is one with which most people are not familiar, because it is not “rung” as in a bell, but rather “rung” as a term used in falconry, which refers to the bird rising through the air in spirals — circling upward.

Hopkins says the bird “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing,”  meaning that in his upward circling, he was held in the gyre by the folding — the bending — of his wing, but “wimple” also has the meaning of “meander, turn” — so we can add this layer of meaning to it as well if we wish — that the bird was held in the spiral by turning with his wings.  We often find such uncertainty of interpretation and multiple possibilities of meaning in the rather archaic language Hopkins employs — but we see the overall significance, and that is enough, because Hopkins is not clearly defining what he means, not presenting his images sharply outlined, but rather is using some of the impressionism we found in Dylan Thomas.  That is one reason why his use of grammar is often rather odd, though rhythm also plays a part in that.  He is more concerned about the sound of words and the images they create than in telling us plainly and clearly what he means.  That is the key to understanding Hopkins.

Hopkins tells us that the bird did this upward spiralling “in its ecstasy,” but it is obvious that it is Hopkins, not the falcon, who feels this ecstasy.  He is projecting his admiration, his emotion, onto the windhover.

Then, he says, the bird was “off forth on swing, as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind.”  The bird leaves the upward spiral and hurls himself off in another direction and makes yet another sharp swing in the air, as though the strength of the wind meant nothing at all to him.

The bird throws itself forward into a swing, like the “heel” of a skate sweeps smoothly in a turn — a “bow-bend” on the ice.  Hopkins tells us that the “hurl” — the forward impetus — and the gliding of the bird “rebuffed the big wind,” meaning the falcon showed by skill that it was master, not the wind.

Hopkins is lost in admiration as he secretly watches: “My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”  He is overwhelmed — his heart is stirred — by witnessing the achievement of the falcon, its mastery of the air and wind.

Hopkins sees so many elements impressively combining in the flying falcon: “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here buckle!

In “buckle,” Hopkins uses a term so various in its meanings that he makes the sentence difficult, but he wants another “b” word to go with “brute” and “beauty,” so “buckle” it is.  Different interpreters have different opinions, but I like to think that he is using it in a manner derived from the French boucler, which means “to bulge” “to curl,” “to loop.”  Seen thus, the sentence means  that “brute beauty and valour and  the act of swift turning, the air /wind, the “pride,” of the bird (his natural great ability) and “plume” (his feathers) here buckle!” — meaning that the physical characteristics, strength and skill of the bird combine with the air and wind in his impressive curving turn. We can add to this a secondary level of meaning from the old use of the term “buckle” to indicate things that come together and join, as two groups of men who “buckle” in battle.  So all of these characteristics of bird and air join in the marvelous sweep and turn of the windhover.  We should not be surprised that Hopkins makes us excavate meanings out of his archaic terms — it is one of his peculiarities, and inward-turning people do have their peculiarities.

Now we come to the most difficult part of the poem:

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-vermilion.

Did you notice that Hopkins has been talking of the windhover throughout the poem in the third person, like an “it” or a “he”?  Why, then, does he suddenly shift to speaking of a “thee?”  This is where the odd dedication “To Christ our Lord” comes in.  It seems that in this shift to “thee,” Hopkins shifts his attention from the bird to Christ, whom he addresses directly, calling him “my chevalier.”  That is another term borrowed from French; a chevalier is a knight, one who rides on a cheval — a horse.  We have seen that the windhover rides on the wind.  Now our attention is turned to Christ, who is the “knight” to Hopkins — or better, the “noble rider.”  But whereas the skill — the “glory” of the windhover lies in mastering wing and wind, the skill, the glory of Christ lies revealed in his mastery of Nature (in Hopkins’ religious view) and its acts and changes.  Hopkins has seen it in the remarkable spiralling and turning and swooping of the windhover, and having seen it, he tells Christ,

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-vermilion.

By “fire” he means “glory,” an old term which means not only fame and laud but also great light, like the “glory hole” of a glass blower’s furnace, through which the intense blazing fire is seen.  He sees the glory of Christ in the glory of Nature and its creatures — specifically here in the windhover.  He sees the fire, the “glory” of Christ in the windhover, and he is more than impressed, knowing that the totality of the glory of Christ is astoundingly more multiplied and impressive, “a billion times told lovelier,” and he feels it so overwhelming as to be dangerous.  There is often a sense of danger associated with something felt to be incredibly holy and powerful.

Hopkins goes on to say that nonetheless, there is nothing remarkable in that — in seeing “glory”  — Christ’s glory — or to put it in wider terms, the glory of God — in the natural world — in the flight of the windhover.  It is not to be wondered at, because something as ordinary as a farmer plodding behind his hand-held, horse-pulled plough down a furrow in the field (a “sillion”) makes the dull metal of the plough shine with light (“fire,” “glory”) as the turning soil polishes it.  And Hopkins adds that even the dark-appearing, blue-bleak coals of a fire in the hearth, when they fall and and gall (abrade, scrape) themselves and break open (gash themselves), reveal an intense gold-vermilion light inside, their “glory”: just as there is a glory hidden in such ordinary things as a plough in the furrow and in apparently dark coals in a fireplace, so the glory of Christ hidden in such a thing as the windhover may reveal itself if one pays attention.

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

What are we to do with a poet who sprinkles his verse with archaic words and odd terms like “sillion,” leaving us to divine and dig for his meaning?  “Sillion” seems to be a word Hopkins created himself, probably inspired by the French word sillon, which means simply “furrow.”  And actually Hopkins is using it to mean precisely that — a furrow in a field.  For some reason, a few writers after him seem to have misinterpreted it to mean the soil turned by the plow, but when Hopkins says “plow down sillion,” he is simply talking of the passage of the plow down the furrow; and it is clearly the plow that shines in the poem, according to Hopkins, not the turned soil, as some would incorrectly have it.

So Hopkins is deliberately archaic and oddly vague.  He could have just written “plow down furrow,” but obviously that would not have rhymed with “vermilion,” so he employs his peculiar yet somehow effective (if one ignores its obscurity) construction “sillion” instead.

Surprisingly, even if one does not take the time necessary to decipher Hopkins, one may still derive a great deal of pleasure from his use of repetition of sounds, and from such vivid images as dark coals that “gash gold-vermilion.”  But I hope what I have said here will be of some use to those readers who want to go a bit deeper.

Hopkins’ use of “gall” also has some ambiguity when he speaks of  “blue-bleak embers” that “fall, gall, and gash themselves gold-vermilion.”  “Gall” means to swell, but it also can mean “to damage or break the surface,” and in fact Hopkins uses it in this latter sense in his poem St. Alphonsus Rodriguez:

And those strokes that once gashed flesh or galled shield…

Obviously it is this latter meaning that Hopkins intends in St. Alphonsus, and he likely  intends it in The Windhover as well, meaning that the falling coals “gall themselves and gash gold-vermilion,” with those terms indicating the abrading (scraping) and gashing open of the falling hot coals, revealing the “gold-vermilion” bright heat inside as they do so.

It is this ambiguous use of often archaic terms that makes Hopkins somewhat bothersome in interpretation, if not in overall effect.  In fact some interpreters take “buckle” in the poem to indicate the passion of Jesus, “in the V-shaped collapse of his out-pinned arms, when his body buckled under its own weight” (Paul L. Mariani, A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins).  To me such an interpretation is a bit excessive and goes beyond what we actually find in the poem (and it also makes a very strained analogy with the swooping bird), but who is to say that Hopkins might not have had such a thing in mind, with the coals that “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion” indicating the bleeding wounds of Jesus?  Well, it still seems excessive to me, and not indicated in the poem, but we cannot deny that Hopkins adds obscurity rather than clarity to his writing by his use of archaic and imprecise terminology.

We may speculate on what Hopkins might have produced had he not become a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit, if he had not burned his poems when he changed his life, if he had not been subjected to years of depressing, unchallenging work that no doubt added to the weight and physical effects of his depression, but that is pointless.  He has left us a number of poems of varying effectiveness and varying opacity, and we can take pleasure in turning them over in our minds like stones from a quarry, seeing here and there in them the sudden, strange, opalescent shine of gemstone in the matrix, the glory of his mind and creativity.

Hopkins died in 1889, saying on his deathbed that he was happy. His poems were not published until 1918, so Hopkins, like the artist Vincent Van Gogh, died without ever knowing of his fame.  The late date of publication, combined with the remarkably experimental and original nature of his poems, makes people think of Hopkins not as a poet of the 19th century, but rather as one of the “moderns” of the 20th — a century he did not live to see.


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  1. Louise Taylor says:

    I read your explication with appreciation and gratitude. I am an older reader, who has gone back to reading poetry I once was unwilling to slow down, reread, question and savor. I have also memorized several poems, foolishly hoping to stave off inevitable losses. So far, I’ve memorized 5 short poems by Hopkins and found that when I reread them with an intent to memorize, the poems opened up for me. (It’s especially hard to memorize a passage you don’t understand.) The Windhover was the most challenging one for me so far, and your blog offered a convincing elucidation. Thanks. Louise Taylor

  2. Michael Anderson says:

    I disagree with you on your interpretation of the ploughing and the furrow. When the plough turns up the ground it makes the dirt look shiny and purple if it is a black clayish dirt. I understand exactly what he is describing.
    Having grown in up the country, I know the gleam on earth turned by a plow. I can understand why that might come to mind here. But in this case, Hopkins does not say something like, “sheer plod makes plough-turned sillion shine (not using “sillion,” or sod as the object); instead he makes the plough the object: “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine.” And indeed, it does. The friction of soil against metal polishes the plowshare and mouldboard to a bright, silvery shine.

  3. John Kelly says:

    David – very comprehensive discussion of what is in my opinion Hopkins’ greatest poem. Many wonderful insights. My take below.

    The kestrel (Windhover) has to be observed to understand the poem. You only see this bird in Europe (the American kestrel is different and does not hover as the British one does). The use of buckle I always took to mean “Collapses on itself” and if you watch the bird at work, it spies it’s prey and pulls in it’s wings and falls like a sack of coal straight down to pounce on the field mouse or whatever. The power of the bird is in the decsent. Hopkins notes that it is in the descent that the “fire” (color of the bird) is a “million times” more spectacular than watching the bird hovering and flying. Why? Because of the symbolism of what the descent to grab it’s prey means. It’s about saving souls. Our souls. For Hopkins, the bird is Christ who has descended to ignomimous death on the Cross to save humanity (God sent his only son etc – so the unwarranted Graceful offering by the creator). I denote from your comments that you seem to think Hopkins only developed his spirituality once he converted and became a Jesuit Catholic but he had been a devout C of E man prior and the understanding of the Paschal Mystery (which is what the Windhover is about) would be the same in both variants of Christianity. So we, the prey are saved by the descent of the mighty bird. Of course “gash” and “gall” are crucifixion references – they are Hopkins crumbs on the road for us to follow to what he’s getting at. Christ was offfered bitter wine (gall) by a Roman soldier, possibly the same one who jabbed Jesus with a spear to make sure he was later dead, and out of the gash poured blood and “water” (which is why wine and water are mixed for Holy Communion). The Windhover is probably the most “Catholic” poem one could imagine. Miss this and you whiffed the whole exercise.

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