The Kestrel, a Worthy Servant: an Explication of the Poem
“The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
By Appreciable Goodfaithpoet
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning's minion
Kingdom 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: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear
Fall, gall and gash gold-vermilion.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is able to communicate the glory of God through his observations about the beauty of nature in his poem “The Windhover.” In this poem Hopkins indicates that he is writing this poem to the greater glory of God. He says that a person can never explain or demonstrate the grandeur of God as effectively as do the creations of God which are found only in nature. In this poem, Hopkins uses a very loose Italian sonnet form; the poem contains an octave and a sestet but the sestet is divided into two tercets.
Hopkins begins his poem by describing how one morning he caught sight of a Kestrel, as though it were a representative or servant of God in charge of the morning, or as though it were the Prince of the kingdom of daylight. (Line 1) Hopkins uses alliteration extensively in the first line with the “m” sound. He tries to mirror the beauty of nature with the beautiful sound effects in his poem.
Hopkins indicates that when God created the Kestrel he drew spots on its body and he says that he saw and admired the spots as it flew overhead. (Line 2) Because of his poem “Pied Beauty,” we know how much Hopkins likes “dappled things.” In the second line he uses alliteration with the “d” sound and then on the last half of the line he switches to assonance using the “I” sound. There are so many lines that are enjamned in this poem that it makes the poem flow like a soaring bird that is free to swoop and glide. Hopkins states that the Kestrel was flying above him on the steady air that flows under a wing when it is gliding and that the kestrel looked like he was strutting proudly up in the sky. (Line 3) The most notable sound effects in the third line are the assonance tied to the word level and the alliteration of the “s” sound.
It was beautiful to Hopkins, to see this bird riding the sky and gliding with the feathers on his wings rippling. The kestrel was in perfect control like a rider holding the reigns of a horse. (Line 4) In this fourth line Hopkins uses alliteration with the “h” sound and then uses assonance with the ‘I” sound.
The kestrel seemed as though it were in ecstasy. Then the kestrel swooped off to try and kill a skate (a smaller bird) for breakfast. (Line 5) In this line Hopkins uses consonance with the “s” sound and then the “n” sound.
The kestrel sweeps smoothly after the skate in a graceful arc. Its movement was so beautiful that it was as though the kestrel was telling a gusty wind that it could not stop it from it’s objective. (Line 6)
Hopkins says that as he watched the kestrel pursue the skate that his heart which had been asleep and quiet now was filled with excitement and passion because of the kestrel’s behavior. (Line 7)
He was very moved and amazed at the skill and mastery of the kestrel’s ability and precision. (Line 8)
The kestrel was so bold, agile and strong and flew with such confidence! The wind and the beautiful colors of the bird’s feathers blew his mind! (Line 9)
The glory that shown forth out from this magnificent creature was more beautiful by far than the morning light and the beauty of its feathers alone. (Line 10)
This glory was told in a lovely and dangerous way like a knight riding into battle. (Line 11)
This magnificent sight was no surprise as nature is so beautiful; such as when a plow steadily turns up the soil and the clay breaks off in smooth surfaces and shines in the sunlight. (Line 12)
This scene was a beautiful tribute to Gods grandeur, as the blue glistening feathers sparkled in the sunlight. (Line 13)
The kestrel had grabbed onto the skate and they fell to the earth in a bitter struggle as the kestrels talons gashed the body of the skate and covered it with crimson blood. (Line 14) The words “fall” and “gall” in line 14, are an example of interior rhyme and present one of the most beautiful and dramatic sound effects in the poem.
As we consider Hopkins use of alliteration in this poem, we observe that Hopkins writes three or four words at a time trying to use alliteration with each one and then for the second half of the line he switches to a new sound having exhausted the possibility of the first.
The meter seems to have an iambic foot and yet it has so many variations that it almost has no foot. The number of syllables in the lines has no definite pattern to it either. Often during the poem the meter switches to a spondee foot with a strong-strong meter. These strong-strong parts of the poem seem to occur often in the middle of his lines. It is as though Hopkins wants us to take notice to certain words that he has slammed together such as in line 6 when he says, “sweeps smooth.” This spondee meter deviation gives the poem an overall feeling similar to what one may receive from listening to a drummer perform his own unique beat, a pleasing and after a few lines, familiar and beautiful beat.
On line twelve Hopkins added his own accent marks on the words “sheer” and “plod” this adds to the strong-strong beat of the meter in line twelve. This strong-strong meter emphasizes the deliberate and powerful unearthing of sparkling beauty which leads Hopkins to exclaim, “Ah, my dear.”
Hopkins may not have realized that a careless observer would completely miss the lessons such moments provide unless they are pointed out to an individual by a poet such as Hopkins. I feel certain that Hopkins was aware of the fact that his words are very beautiful while, at the same time, following the instructions regarding humility found in the bible, “He that abaseth himself shall be exalted.” In Hopkins case this approach seems to have worked in the literary world as well.
I am familiar with the wonder and excitement that can come as we observe nature from within it; as a part of nature itself. When I was a boy, I was flying a plastic kite that had the image of a hawk on it. I could make this kite swoop and dive just like a real hawk. As I was flying the kite one day, a real hawk came and circled near my kite and dove at the ground when I made my kite dive. This was nothing short of an exhilarating spiritual experience for me and one that was so exciting that it left an indelible impression on my young mind.
Because Gerard Manley Hopkins is able to communicate the glory of God through his observations about the beauty of nature, Hopkins succeeds in glorifying God through his observations. The words of this poem cannot compare to the beauty that can be witnessed first hand, out in nature. However, the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins come very close to being just as beautiful and as moving as the actual experience.