Structure and versification in The Windhover

Sonnet structure

The sonnet structure is one of Hopkins' most elaborate, as is his use of sprung rhythm. Each line could be examined in detail, but we shall be selective here. Basically the poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, rhyming abbbaabbacdcdcd, a very traditional rhyme scheme. The sestet is divided into two tercets - again this is not unusual in Petrarchan sonnets. The octave is not quite evenly divided: the first quatrain runs over into the fifth line with ‘In his ecstasy!', but that in itself is not remarkable.

Sprung rhythm

What is remarkable is the use of the sprung rhythm to try to recreate the bird's flight, with its sweeps, stops and dives. Hopkins' theory allows him to do things to the traditional iambic pentameter, the typical sonnet line form:

  • He can add extra stresses to it, forming extra feet. Sometimes he calls these ‘outriders', i.e. outside the normal scansion; sometimes they are merely extra stressed monosyllables, or spondees
  • He can add extra unstressed syllables, so technically keeping the line to five stressed syllables.
  • He also sets up counterpointing in various ways, so the musical possibilities open to him are numerous, and in this sonnet, they really work for him.

Flight conveyed

In the first few lines, we can see the effect of the bird's soaring through the continuous run-on lines. The first sentence fills most of the octave, with only an exclamation mark to indicate any significant pause. Where else we pause is largely up to us, according to how we respond to the counterpointing.

Investigating The Windhover
  • Where would you pause in the reading of the first three lines?
    • Try several alternatives.


  • The iambic pentameter is quite regular in the first line.
  • In the second line the first and last feet are anapaestic, that is, still a rising metre. but what do we do with the middle of the line: ‘dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon'?
    • Each of the alliterating syllables really needs a stress, as does the ‘Fal-'.
    • We have to conclude ‘dawn' and ‘drawn' are extra spondees, giving the line seven stresses rather than five.
    • When we see the internal rhymes and assonance here, too, with the long ‘aw' sound, it makes the line very long indeed.
    • However the hyphenating invites us to read the phrase quickly.
    • This is a good example of counterpointing.
  • In the third line, ‘rolling' is quite onomatopoeic, and the rhythm suggests evenness, every syllable being of much the same length and stress. Even so, that will give us seven feet again, if we put a secondary stress on ‘neath'. We could rush the ‘underneath him', or see it as an ‘outrider', which would get us back to the five regular beats. Also the last unstressed syllable ‘-ing' really belongs to the iambic metre of the next line.

  • By contrast to these expansive lines, we suddenly hit l.7 which is economical, barely making five feet, but then lengthening out again to the climactic eighth line.

In the sestet, Hopkins actually marks in certain stresses for us:

  • ‘sheer' and ‘plod'. He doesn't want the stress to be shared between then, as perhaps it should be in ‘blue-bleak'.
  • To keep the rest of the line in order, we then have to see ‘of it' as extra unstressed syllables
  • ‘down' as an unstressed syllable, a preposition or adverb perhaps. But is that how we really read ‘down'? What does the word really mean? We could argue over this.
  • In the last line the internal rhymes ‘Fall' and ‘gall' each demand a stress, slowing the line right down like a brake.
  • There is a further application of the brake in ‘gash', ‘gold' again both stressed

The whole poem then comes to an emphatic stop.

Investigating The Windhover
  • Take any line not so far discussed, and see if you can analyse its metre, stresses and pauses.
    • What effects do you think Hopkins is seeking to create?
  • The poem as a whole: This is a difficult poem and maybe you have spent some hours puzzling it out.
    • Do you feel rewarded by your efforts?
    • Do you feel you understand Hopkins' conflict?
    • Do you think he has resolved it?
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