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-vermillion.
The windhover is a bird with the rare ability to hover in the air, essentially flying in place while it scans the ground in search of prey. The poet describes how he saw (or “caught”) one of these birds in the midst of its hovering. The bird strikes the poet as the darling (“minion”) of the morning, the crown prince (“dauphin”) of the kingdom of daylight, drawn by the dappled colors of dawn. It rides the air as if it were on horseback, moving with steady control like a rider whose hold on the rein is sure and firm. In the poet’s imagination, the windhover sits high and proud, tightly reined in, wings quivering and tense. Its motion is controlled and suspended in an ecstatic moment of concentrated energy. Then, in the next moment, the bird is off again, now like an ice skater balancing forces as he makes a turn. The bird, first matching the wind’s force in order to stay still, now “rebuff[s] the big wind” with its forward propulsion. At the same moment, the poet feels his own heart stir, or lurch forward out of “hiding,” as it were—moved by “the achieve of, the mastery of” the bird’s performance.
The opening of the sestet serves as both a further elaboration on the bird’s movement and an injunction to the poet’s own heart. The “beauty,” “valour,” and “act” (like “air,” “pride,” and “plume”) “here buckle.” “Buckle” is the verb here; it denotes either a fastening (like the buckling of a belt), a coming together of these different parts of a creature’s being, or an acquiescent collapse (like the “buckling” of the knees), in which all parts subordinate themselves into some larger purpose or cause. In either case, a unification takes place. At the moment of this integration, a glorious fire issues forth, of the same order as the glory of Christ’s life and crucifixion, though not as grand.
The confusing grammatical structures and sentence order in this sonnet contribute to its difficulty, but they also represent a masterful use of language. Hopkins blends and confuses adjectives, verbs, and subjects in order to echo his theme of smooth merging: the bird’s perfect immersion in the air, and the fact that his self and his action are inseparable. Note, too, how important the “-ing” ending is to the poem’s rhyme scheme; it occurs in verbs, adjectives, and nouns, linking the different parts of the sentences together in an intense unity. A great number of verbs are packed into a short space of lines, as Hopkins tries to nail down with as much descriptive precision as possible the exact character of the bird’s motion.
“The Windhover” is written in “sprung rhythm,” a meter in which the number of accents in a line are counted but the number of syllables does not matter. This technique allows Hopkins to vary the speed of his lines so as to capture the bird’s pausing and racing. Listen to the hovering rhythm of “the rolling level underneath him steady air,” and the arched brightness of “and striding high there.” The poem slows abruptly at the end, pausing in awe to reflect on Christ.
This poem follows the pattern of so many of Hopkins’s sonnets, in that a sensuous experience or description leads to a set of moral reflections. Part of the beauty of the poem lies in the way Hopkins integrates his masterful description of a bird’s physical feat with an account of his own heart’s response at the end of the first stanza. However, the sestet has puzzled many readers because it seems to diverge so widely from the material introduced in the octave. At line nine, the poem shifts into the present tense, away from the recollection of the bird. The horse-and-rider metaphor with which Hopkins depicted the windhover’s motion now give way to the phrase “my chevalier”—a traditional Medieval image of Christ as a knight on horseback, to which the poem’s subtitle (or dedication) gives the reader a clue. The transition between octave and sestet comes with the statement in lines 9-11 that the natural (“brute”) beauty of the bird in flight is but a spark in comparison with the glory of Christ, whose grandeur and spiritual power are “a billion times told lovelier, more dangerous.”
The first sentence of the sestet can read as either descriptive or imperative, or both. The idea is that something glorious happens when a being’s physical body, will, and action are all brought into accordance with God’s will, culminating in the perfect self-expression. Hopkins, realizing that his own heart was “in hiding,” or not fully committed to its own purpose, draws inspiration from the bird’s perfectly self-contained, self-reflecting action. Just as the hovering is the action most distinctive and self-defining for the windhover, so spiritual striving is man’s most essential aspect. At moments when humans arrive at the fullness of their moral nature, they achieve something great. But that greatness necessarily pales in comparison with the ultimate act of self-sacrifice performed by Christ, which nevertheless serves as our model and standard for our own behavior.
The final tercet within the sestet declares that this phenomenon is not a “wonder,” but rather an everyday occurrence—part of what it means to be human. This striving, far from exhausting the individual, serves to bring out his or her inner glow—much as the daily use of a metal plow, instead of wearing it down, actually polishes it—causing it to sparkle and shine. The suggestion is that there is a glittering, luminous core to every individual, which a concerted religious life can expose. The subsequent image is of embers breaking open to reveal a smoldering interior. Hopkins words this image so as to relate the concept back to the Crucifixion: The verb “gash” (which doubles for “gush”) suggests the wounding of Christ’s body and the shedding of his “gold-vermilion” blood.