By Gerard Manley Hopkins
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: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
The first half of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover,” is composed of a rich, lingering description of a falcon’s early morning flight. At the sight the poet is caught up in a moment of awe similar to the falcon’s own high “ecstasy” (5). Yet the moment moves beyond the purely sensual experience to relate the grandeur of the falcon to the glory of Christ and the beauty the poet’s soul can achieve in following its divine master.
The imagery of the first half emphasizes the power and the mastery of the bird, which, paradoxically, is most conclusively proved when the creature allows itself to be swept along by a powerful gust of wind. On first appearing, the falcon is introduced as “daylight’s dauphin” – heir to the kingdom of the day – who strides the “steady air” effortlessly (2, 3). Then his motion changes: from his hovering poise over the earth, he now swings and plunges smoothly along a stray gust of air. The reader does not even discover the “big wind” which precipitates the action until after the poet has already depicted the falcon’s masterful plunge into it, and the omission serves to strengthen the sense of the bird’s invincibility. Though it allows itself to be overcome by the wind, this “defeat” only adds to its power in flight. The sight and stirring of the poet’s “heart in hiding” are drawn together into a single long instant in this stanza, as the feeling of timeless awe and quality of intensely present action are strengthened by the reiteration of words ending with the suffix “-ing” (7).
The transition from this vision to the poet’s reflection about it is clearly marked by a switch to a repeating b-c rhyme scheme. Describing the scene as indicating “brute beauty and valour and act,” the poet seems to enjoin his own assumed “airs” and “pride” to “buckle” – “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” (9-10). The same injunction also serves as a continued description of the falcon’s victorious flight as the bird simultaneously “buckle[s]” down to grapple with the wind and conquers it by buckling under it. All the beauty of this single vision from nature draws the poet’s mind to Christ, as he joyfully proclaims that “the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovlier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” (10-11). Like the falcon, Christ’s defeat of the power that assailed him – death – was completed only as he allowed himself to be momentarily defeated by it. In this act of submission, the true “dauphin” of light in the world revealed power and beauty beyond previous imagination (2).
Despite the brilliance of the falcon’s flight and the subsequent reverie, the poet observes that his conclusion is “no wonder” at all, really (12). By simply plodding along behind the plow of daily life, every soul can make the “plough down sillion / Shine” (12). Every person is called to sacrifice himself to the daily struggle of coming to life through dying to oneself. It is in imitating the falcon’s descent and Christ’s “fall” that any human can best imitate their mastery and intransient beauty, the poet concludes. Even the most apparently unprepossessing object, such as the “blue-bleak embers” which remain after the fire seems extinguished, gain infinite grandeur if they will “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion” (14).