|Photo by Holly Ordway|
One of my college English professors remarked about The Windhover, “Nobody really knows what that poem is about.” At the time, I let that relieve me from the obligation to wrestle with it, even while admitting its beauty. Looking back, I wonder if I was simply unwilling to see what Hopkins was waiting to show me, for he tells us at least one thing pretty straight, in dedicating the poem “To Christ our Lord.”
I’ve traveled a lot of ground since I was an eighteen-year-old English major, and close on twenty years since I first encountered this poem in the pages of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume II, I find it one of my favorites, a poem that speaks to me in many moods and on many levels. Hopkins always gives me more than I can take in at any one reading.
One of the things he gives me is a taste of pure joy, so that I can recognize it when I feel it in my own life. I need the image of Christ as the windhover, the soaring bird of prey, free and dangerous and beautiful, because in my work as a Christian apologist, it is too easy to forget that my defense of the faith is the work of cooperating with the Spirit; God does not need my protection. Whatever I say or know about Him, He is “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous.”
Most recently Hopkins has helped me as I learn how to be a poet. “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” When I feel that my heart will break for sheer joy, Hopkins shows me in the exuberance of his language that this joy can be expressed; that finding the right words and shaping them into the precise and constrained form of a sonnet, can be my response, as his was. “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume here / Buckle!”
When I do not feel that joy, what then? The Psalmist says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” He does not say that the Lord will keep him from the shadow, but only that he need not fear it.
Hopkins gives me two images that show me that the dark and weary days, when the spirit is in the valley of the shadow of death, are not wasted days.
He says, “sheer plod makes plough down sillion / Shine”: as the plough’s blade is pulled through the earth, step by weary step, breaking up the hard soil so that it can be planted and yield the harvest, the grinding of the soil will polish the buried blade, removing any rust, so that when it is pulled from the earth at the end of the row, it will be bright and shining.
And again, with another image: “blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, / Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.” The fire is at a low ebb, the embers seeming almost cold; they are dull, ashy. But when the fire is prodded the embers fall out of the grate, and break - and in breaking, show their glowing insides, “gold-vermillion,” the color of blood and royalty.
From a falcon wheeling joyously in the sky, to ashy coals falling from a grate, Hopkins finds beauty and words to frame that beauty. Not a bad way to think about the calling of the poet.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works. Oxford World’s Classics.