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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Number 67: Gerard Manley Hopkins "The Windhover"

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: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hap Notes: If you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary poem (written in 1877!) don't panic at the rush of words- let's just take it one phrase at a time, slowly- it's so worth it.

The Windhover (another word for kestrel/falcon-pictured above)

I caught this morning

morning's minion (morning's highly favored servant)

king/dom of daylight's dauphin (the son/prince of the kingdom of daylight)

dapple-dawn-drawn falcon (dapple is spotted- so the dawn and the falcon have mottled color)

in his riding/ of the rolling level underneath him steady air (the bird is riding the thermal currents in the air)

and striding /high there, how he rung upon the reign of a wimpling wing (he flew in circles with a side slip, using his wings to curve and glide from one level to another)

in his ecstasy! then off, off forth on a swing/As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend: (He's talking about a skate- the large ray under the sea, and the bow bend- is the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) the curve of it)

the hurl and gliding/Rebuffed the big wind. ( the bird's flying ability is such that it can reject the force of the wind-- it refuses the influence of the wind)

My heart in hiding ( Well, there's a lot going on here- first off, the heart is always in hiding inside the body, secondly Hopkins is perhaps talking about his heart hiding from a full commitment to God (he's writing this poem just before he's ordained as a priest) and also his decision to be a priest will hide him, his talents (he was a talented artist and writer.) And really, everyone's heart is in hiding, isn't it?)

Stirred for a bird- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. (Always good to remember that the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a bird, in addition to the actual bird's breath-taking flying abilities.)

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh air, pride, plume here/Buckle! (Another phrase with a lot going on. The bird tucks his wings and seems to be falling or changing direction. Remember that this poem is dedicated to Jesus so parallels to the life of Christ abound in this poem. The poet's pride must also buckle, give out, be humbled as Christ was.)

And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/ Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my Chevalier. ( I believe now the poet is addressing Jesus and saying that his sacrifice, his daily life, was more lovely and dangerous than this incredible falcon's daily performance. A chevalier is a knight- so it's one that must go into battle. Nature's awesome beauty is a daily thing and Christ's daily life was a billion times lovelier. Why? That's coming up...)

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plow down sillion/ shine (sillion is a strip of land usually worked by a tenant farmer. The plow, by going through the earth on it's daily plodding job, shines from the friction of the dirt. I have to admit, I always thought he meant the earth itself had a shine from the plow's daily upturning of minerals. I think both are correct interpretations. So the poet is saying common daily hard work makes the plow/earth shine.)

and blue bleak embers, ah my dear,/ Fall gall themselves and gash gold vermillion. ( A dark ember, when it falls, often reveals a core of heat and fire still within it. Bleak, apparently dead coals, may still be alive with fire. See the Christ reference in this?)

There. That wasn't so hard, huh? What Hopkins is saying, then, in a nutshell, is that the flight of this bird reminded him of the glory of God's earth, the life of Christ, the Holy Spirit and his own thoughts of ordination. That dedicating yourself to the daily work of God may be plodding, humbling work but is no more so than Jesus' own example. And that there is a glorious aspect to it.

There's more in the poem, but you can read it and get your own interpretation. I've always felt there was a joyous ecstasy of the discovery of the beauty of everyday life in the poem. That the regular plodding world is actually full of the beautiful mysteries of nature and God.

It's the startling way Hopkins uses words and sounds that make this poem so effective. He packs so much into this sonnet. And dig the way he uses the rhyme in such a way that you barely notice it except it scans so gorgeously with the sounds. There is nobody like Hopkins when it comes to the sheer force and color of words. Each verse is packed with phonemic surprises, stops and starts.

This is the start of a week of birds in poetry (except for tomorrow when I have an interesting Valentine's Day poem for us) because Feb. 18 is the start of the four-day Great Backyard Bird Count (sponsored by Audubon and the Columbia Lab of Ornithology) and I hope you will participate. You don't have to do it for all four days, you can do it for one day or one time on one day. You only need to watch birds for 15 minutes and write your count. This citizen-scientist count is so important- it gives so much information on the environment and how healthy it is or isn't. It tracks birds to see where they are as opposed to where they were years ago. It helps protect the species of many endangered birds.

Go here for more information:

1 comment:

  1. Good blog. I have a real soft spot for this Manley Hopkins poem