Imagery and symbolism in The Windhover

Chivalric sport

The main image of the octave is the kestrel as knight. As hawking and falconry are aristocratic, medieval sports, it is appropriate for Hopkins to use both images and diction that reflect this. Since medieval aristocratic life was basically conducted in French, so are the terms used:

  • ‘minion', meaning ‘darling' rather than ‘servant' in medieval French;
  • ‘dauphin', the heir apparent to the French throne;
  • ‘wimpling' from ‘wimple' a medieval head covering, still worn by nuns;
  • ‘rung' and ‘rein' both suggest falconry and releasing the bird whilst riding.

So the bird appears noble, proud, as well as totally skilful.

In the sestet, Christ is addressed as knight, using the same medieval terminology as in the octave. Whilst seeing Christ as a knight is not exactly biblical, many medieval poems did see Christ in this way (e.g. an Old English poem ‘The Dream of the Rood [Cross]'). More significantly, Jesuit spirituality saw Christ as the supreme chevalier, whilst Jesuit priests were seen as Christ's soldiers.

Physical freedom

Hopkins introduces a second image in the octave: that of skating, another sport that demands skill and grace and strength in equal measure. Here he is thinking of the sweeping movements of the bird through the air. Implicit in both images is the idea of physical freedom, of being without borders, and also of display. The bird is unselfconsciously showing off his skill.


The sestet lacks such cohesive images. There is the sudden emergence of ‘fire':

  • ‘the fire that breaks from..' might suggest volcanic activity
  • however the last two lines suggest more an apparently dying fire, which when stirred, breaks out into flame again, though that would not seem very ‘dangerous'.

The dangerous fire is either:

  • God's glory, which is too fierce for man to look on,
‘the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory' (2 Corinthians 3:7 NIV)

a glory he had from contact with God on Mount Sinai,

‘When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant and they were afraid to come near him.' (Exodus 34:30 NIV)
  • or electric fire from an arc.


PloughingThe final two images pull the sestet together. The image of ploughing, a humble, non-glamorous activity, is made to seem something special by the use of ‘sillion' another medieval word meaning furrow (but rhyming with much grander French-sounding words ‘billion' and ‘vermilion') and the image of the shining earth as it is turned by the plough.

In a sermon, Hopkins refers to the humble period of Christ's life, when he was a carpenter at Nazareth, before his ministry began, as ‘the great help to faith'. In a letter he writes: ‘We (Jesuits) cultivate the commonplace outwardly, and wish the beauty of...the soul to be all from within.' This doesn't mean he found it easy.

Glowing embers

The final image of the fire stirred, its embers glowing gold and hot again, represents a beauty in miniature, as well as domestic and relaxed comfort, which stands in strange tension to the thought of Christ's wounds. Yet the mixture of earth and fire in these two final images could be seen to symbolise body and spirit. In an essay, Hopkins wrote that the unique blending of these two elements constituted man's inscape. The images of the sestet are less obvious than those of the octave, this movement from simple octave to difficult sestet echoing ‘The Starlight Night'.

Investigating The Windhover
  • What images stand out to you?
    • Would you say the images are visual, or is it more the associations they have which makes them memorable?
  • From all that has been said, what do you think the bird symbolises for Hopkins?
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