The Mastery of the Thing

A rereading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s great poem, “The Windhover.”

By Ange Mlinko
Poetry Media Services

I fell in love with “The Windhover” when I was a teenager, recognizing right away the rapture of a love poem directed not at a particular person (though the poem is dedicated “To Christ Our Lord”) but to life itself. The poem is widely anthologized, a cornerstone of the English canon, bridging the Victorian age and early-20th-century Modernism. Its author, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was a Jesuit priest who died at the age of 44. He had felt the tension between his religious and literary callings throughout his career, first burning all his work upon entering the priesthood, then taking up verses again only for church occasions. Hopkins vacillated between joy and despair both in his poetry and about his poetry—but at least he continued to write it.

When I was first discovering poetry, it was 1986 or so, and I was taught largely contemporary confessional and identity poetry written in modern, accessible, but (to me) dull language. So it was with a sympathetic ecstasy that I leaped back in time to Hopkins’s sonnet written on May 30, 1877:

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! . . .

By the end of the first line we have no idea yet what was caught, though it seems to be a “king.” But the line break tricks us: it’s really “kingdom” and it’s part of a continuing, relentless trail of modifiers that are really metaphors, but metaphors for what? By the time we get to “Falcon,” the bird mentioned in the poem’s title, we’re far from certain that we’re talking about a real falcon and not a metaphor for yet something else. The poem, it turns out, is an epistemological narrative unfurling: What are we seeing?

Fear not: we are reading about a real falcon. “Windhover,” my dictionary tells me, is British dialect for a kestrel: “a small falcon that hovers with rapidly beating wings while searching for prey on the ground.” The bird is riding a thermal: “the rolling underneath him steady air,” which, with its implied hyphens between the words, is a very particular type of air. “Striding” and “high” help build the feeling of “ecstasy,” as does “rung,” which is a technical term from falconry meaning “rising in a spiraling motion.” But Hopkins also sees that the bird is “reined” by his “wimpling wing”—a wimple is part of a nun’s headdress, which presses against her temples and keeps her hair back. In other words, the bird is exulting not only in the freedom of the air, but in the resistance of it too, the friction.

. . . then off, off forth on a 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!

The bird achieves or masters something in his successful negotiation of the powerful wind, and it is this that “stirs” Hopkins’s heart. His heart was “in hiding” before. Perhaps he was despondent or, like any of us most of the time, he wasn’t noticing anything in particular about his surroundings until that moment, that dawn or dawning, a symbol of reawakening. The speaker of the poem could be anyone—man or woman, old or young—who somehow steps out of the ego and, by inhabiting another creature, finds a sacramental joy in simply being alive.

Brute beauty and valor 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.

Hopkins’s mimetic language turns from describing the kestrel’s flight in the first part of the sonnet (the eight-line octet) to describing how its dynamics are also hidden in other things—and, ultimately, his own soul. As when the kestrel is buffeted by the wind and then comes back stronger, fire breaks from things when they “buckle.” When the plow turns up the dull clods of earth, the new earth glints with minerals (“sillion” is a medieval term for the small strip of land granted to monasteries to farm). When a “blue-bleak” ember falls from a log, it flares up again with new light. And thus when the spirit falls against the opaque materiality of the world, it breaks open (gashes) with an insight, or illumination.

“The Windhover” is a sonnet as fierce and alive as that kestrel Hopkins saw in May 1877. When I first read it, for all my teenage ignorance about theology and archaic word meanings, it swept me up in its rhythms and dashed me down again with the sudden impact of that electrifying final line: “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.” If we hear through our eyes when we read any page of text, Hopkins taught me that in a great poem’s soundscapes, we “see” through our ears as well.

Ange Mlinko’s poems and articles have appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation, and Poetry. Her latest book of poems is Starred Wire. This article first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Gerald Manley Hopkins, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org.

© 2009 by Ange Mlinko. All rights reserved.

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~ by ericedits on June 9, 2009.

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