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-vermilion.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins
The poem “The Windhover, ” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, has a multitude of layers. First is the basic visual image: a bird is flying and diving down, while a man (possibly ploughing) watches. Then there is the additional imagery used in describing this first layer: the falcon’s wing is like a wimple, a flowing garment; turning like a skate going around a curve (but with implications not only of a curve, but of a ship, of a string instrument, of a hunting/fighting bow), then fire is brought in as an image, the sillion shining, the falcon as a chivalrous knight, and again back to the fire image, it is dying out, falling with: a curious choice of words, “gall” and then in the end there is the imagery of a wound, bleeding gold (1) and vermilion (2). The last and deepest layer is what it might mean on a symbolic level; what it all, put together, is. Unlike allegory there is no single meaning that can be argued as truth in a poem; more on the lines of myth, many things can be argued following lines of theme.
Here is the poem rewritten for meaning:
I intercepted, came upon unexpectedly, perceived fleetingly this morning, morning’s servant, kingdom of daylight’s prince, patches of dawnlight-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level, underneath him steady air, and striding high there, how he ascended quickly flying in tight circles upon the rein of a flowing-garment-like-wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a curving bend: the hurl and gliding defied, rejected, fought off the big wind. My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Animal, savagely violent, physical, harsh, fundamental, inescapable beauty and courage in face of danger (in battle) and act, oh, air, pleasure & satisfaction, feather(s) here bend & give way under pressure or strain! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion times lovelier, more dangerous, O my courteous, brave, heroic, grand, fine, rejoicing knight! No wonder of it: unmitigated slow, heavy tread makes plough down soil on edge of furrow shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, boldly, impudently; (bitter & cruelly) [[destroy]] themselves, and cut deeply; wounds gold-vermilion.
So what does the poem really mean?
Being such a symbolic and complex poem, it is impossible to be sure; but a plausible assertion is that it has to do with a man’s experience of God, judging first from the inscription. There are different sides of God: the Lamb of God is suffering, gentle. This is not the lamb of God. This is the warrior God, Revelations’ God – though not the kind of warrior who destroys you if you belong to the King. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is associated with birds and wind—though the wind (which the falcon is mastering and rebuffing) could really stand for almost anything. The falcon can be connected with ecstasy and rejoicing and freedom; also with battle and chivalry. Even with the starting-place that the falcon is God, and that the earth and plough imagery stands for Man, the relationship between the two is not entirely straightforward.
For example, the fall that the falcon takes (perhaps a dive to kill its prey) which brings the air/falcon/flying imagery to the earth/man/walking imagery with the connecting image of fire: at first the fire breaks from the bird, lovely and dangerous; later, the fire is embers, falling to the ground; instead of breaking, sparking, in the air, dangerous; they are almost – but not quite – out, connected by the first line of the stanza to the earth, the soil, the plough; controlled, instead of wild.
These images and second-level stories have a good deal of symbolic possibility and of possible meaning, but there can be no conclusion drawn—only supposition that this poem is about a man who encountered something transcendent and powerful and untouchable.
How do the sounds used in the poem add to the meaning? The first half of the first stanza uses many instances of alliteration in each line, so when spoken they roll up and down and back up again like the falcon riding the wind; when it says he goes off on a swing the sound of the words shift to more smooth ones, with less alliteration. The second stanza starts out as connected as the other lines have been, but close on the second line there’s a sudden change of rhythm, as the sentence ends suddenly one word into the line. The third stanza starts out reflecting the turn of the poem, suddenly plodding instead of flying, with words that need space to fit in the mouth, each one a heavy step upon the ground. In the last line, as the embers fall, again the sounds change: now they reflect the gash, the wound, words that cut through, using g-based alliteration of one-syllable words – and then, with the last phrase, gold-vermillion, there is a richness on the tongue, the sound like blood.
Together, the images and the sounds work. From the bold God, to the winged-spirit God, from the plodding of man to the majesty of God, it is all contained as if of a piece.
(1) Color as used in the Bible: Gold usually, that which is Holy to God
(2) Color as used in the Bible: Vermilion. Some are: rich, ornate, costly; injustice, oppression, greed, outward appearances.
Photo by Frances Cacnio, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Sara Barkat.
How to Read a Poem offers delightful advice on how to explore poetry for enjoyment and meaning. Uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology included.