Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover”

As liturgical time draws to an end, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King.  At this moment it is worth remembering one of the finest English efforts at honoring the glory, majesty, sovereignty, authority, liberality, and magnanimity of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—“The Windhover: to Christ our Lord” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

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.

In Hopkins’ poem the image of the mighty Windhover reigning in his domain of the sky, its flight in the glory of the luminous dawn (“this morning morning’s minion of daylight’s dauphin”), and the sheer awe-inspiring sublimity of its greatness (‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”) amid the forceful winds evoke the power and the glory of kingship its all its splendor, royalty, and divinity. Christ the King moves and acts in His dominion– all of Nature and Creation—with the same all-powerful, all-encompassing regality that the windhover’s flight encircles in the beautiful grace of its movements.

GerardManleyHopkinsMarveling at the power, speed, and gracefulness of the windhover in the sky, Hopkins contemplates the movement and command of the falcon in the sky as the bird ascends, descends, accelerates, decelerates, and turns: “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” This beautiful dance of the bird in the air Hopkins compares to a skater on the ice who moves with perfect poise and agility as he changes direction and varies his speed with total command, “smooth on a bow-bend”. The bird in the sky that resists the mighty wind and the skater on the ice who whirls and glides effortlessly resembles the monarch who exercises his sovereignty with freedom and authority. The windhover flashing through the sky with a trail of light captures the essence of royalty, “daylight’s dauphin,” and leaves an image of kingship and nobility that evokes manly knighthood: “O my chevalier!” What majesty and awe in beholding this glorious sight!

The poem, subtitled “To Christ our Lord,” compares Christ’s actions and movements in the world to the mastery, strength, beauty, and finesse of the falcon and the skater whose unerring motions and sure sense of direction beautify creation and glorify God. Christ is a king, his power is astonishing, his miracles manifest his greatness, and he radiates light and expresses the glory and grandeur of God always and everywhere. Christ can walk on water, multiply the loaves and the fish, raise Lazarus from the dead, cure the blind, change water into wine, and transform bread and wine into the spiritual food of the body and blood of the Lord. Like the falcon who rises and falls, ascending with the short quick movements captured in the opening line and then collapsing its wings in its descent that the word “Buckle!” expresses, Christ too moves from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, from life to death, from death to life, from human existence to a heavenly ascension, from the tomb to the upper room to the road to Emmaus—movements that are as daring, creative, and spectacular as the displays of the windhover’s dramatic movements and the skater’s dazzling turns.

This “brute beauty” of manliness that Christ the noble king, the chivalrous “chevalier,” epitomizes strength revealed in the form of love, service, sacrifice, and protection— the beauty of masculine goodness that is willing to die and shed blood for the ones it loves, to “fall” and “gall” and “gash gold vermilion” in the ultimate act of self-donation, service, or martyrdom that embodies heroic masculine virtue. What a man! What a manly man is this chevalier! This is Christ boldly acting and moving in the world expending every source of power and dispensing all the energy of love in the passionate outburst of his heart that races, plunges, flies, and travels in motions that express the most absolute beauty of the most perfect love. The gracefulness of the windhover, the agility of the skater, the majesty of the king, and the “brute beauty” of Christ thrill the mind in rapt contemplation of the true, the good, and the beautiful all in one.

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children s Literature.

  • publiusnj

    Thank you. Christ is the story and Hopkins tells it well, illuminating the great glory that even one of God’s “lesser” creatures masters and achieves.

  • SC woman

    Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favorite poets.

  • CharlesOConnell

    Fr. Hopkins’ rendering into modern English of the ancient Gabriel from Heaven’s King http://www.sacra-pizza-man.org/gabriel-from-heavens-king-annunciation-carol-march-25/

    “Over all there lay a psaltery
    Whereon he made an evening’s melody,
    Playing so sweetly that the chamber rang;
    And Angelus ad virginem he sang.”

    - Geoffrey Chaucer, The Miller’s Tale

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  • Chrysostom

    Thank you for this sensitive and perceptive article. Hopkins wrote this poem when he was at the Jesuit College of Stonyhurst in Lancashire which is still a very strong Catholic school for boarders and day pupils.

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