Commentary on The Windhover

A religious poem

The poem is actually not to the bird at all; it is ‘To Christ our Lord', i.e. a religious poem. The octave is certainly about the bird, trying to define its particular inscape or identity, and the way it impacts him, its instress. But in the sestet, Hopkins shifts his ground, taking his eye off the bird and addressing Christ directly. The sestet in fact, unusually, divides into two clear stanzas:

  • one thinking of the beauty of Christ as opposed to the beauty of the bird;
  • the other, seeing in what way Christ's beauty is beautiful, and, more to the point, how an apparently ordinary religious life could share in that beauty.

This is a challenge for us, too, as modern readers, since we talk easily enough about beautiful women or landscapes, but not about beauty in ordinary, unglamorous things. We might even feel a little embarrassed about it. We have to remember that the Victorians, as heirs to the Romantics, had a much more fully worked out aesthetic , which they were not afraid to apply to religion, or even to a mathematical proof.

Physical beauty

Bird soaring on air currents, photo by Snowmanradio available through Creative CommonsIn the octave, Hopkins has been watching a falcon soaring and swooping in the morning air, marveling at the bird's skill and grace. The windy conditions do not seem to bother the bird, who seems in total control of all his ecstatic movements. Hopkins' ‘heart in hiding' is deeply moved by the sight, yet this reaction distresses him.

Spiritual beauty

In the sestet he seems to want to regain his composure, ‘here buckle'. He can only do this by turning to Christ and declaring:

  • that ‘the fire that breaks from the then' is both more lovely and more challenging
  • such fire is hidden, but breaks out from the ordinary surface appearance of things to reveal itself
  • the implication is that the bird's beauty is merely physical, and Hopkins' response to it merely physical
  • the deeper beauty is spiritual, often hidden underneath a dull physical appearance.

There is the implication, however, in ‘fall' and ‘gash', that he is thinking more specifically about Christ's crucifixion, where his self-sacrifice must be defined as the ultimate spiritual beauty:

  • this self-sacrificing love then becomes the mark of all human spiritual beauty.

However, not everyone would agree with this interpretation.

Creation signifies its creator?

The problem lies in the word ‘Buckle!', which has several quite different meanings:

  • the above interpretation assumes the word means ‘buckle down, or under', 'get control of'
  • but ‘buckle' can also mean to fasten together, as with a belt.

If this is so, then the interpretation has more to do with admitting the way strength, beauty and skill all come together in a unique inscape. The bird, as a created being, then becomes a sign of its creator.

In Christian theology, Christ was present at creation, and therefore could be seen as its creator, or the way through which creation came (‘God... by his Son...through whom he made the universe.' Hebrews 1:2 NIV).

Hopkins then has to think of how he, as priest, can live out his uniqueness, which may well be by ‘sheer plod' rather than the soaring arcs of the bird.

Electric fire

Yet another meaning has been suggested to explain why Hopkins switches to fire imagery, when nothing has been mentioned before about fire:

  • in the nineteenth century, a buckle could be the two points through which an arc of electricity jumps
  • apparently, Victorian scientists could produce an electric arc up to one third of the sun's brilliance.

So, as with God's Grandeur, we are thinking about an electrical charge.

Investigating The Windhover
  • Think about these three meanings for ‘buckle'.
    • Which seems to you the most natural reading?
    • Or do you think Hopkins was deliberately ambiguous?
  • What do you think ‘heart in hiding' refers to?
  • Can you explain what is ‘dangerous'?
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