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The Theme of Hopkins' Sonnet, The Windhover

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The Theme of Hopkins' Sonnet, The Windhover


"'The Windhover' is one of the most discussed, and it would seem least understood, poems of modern English literature." These opening words of a Hopkins' critic forewarn the reader of Hopkins' "The Windhover" that few critics agree on the meaning of this sonnet. Most critics do concur, however, that Hopkins' central theme is based on the paradoxical Christian principle of profit through sacrifice. Although most critics eventually focus on this pivotal concept, each one approaches the poem from a different analytical perspective. The various critics of Hopkins' "The Windhover" find woven throughout its diverse levels expressions of Hopkins' central theme: all toil and painful things work together for good to those who sacrificially love God.

The research of Alfred Thomas provides an interesting place to begin a study of the major critical approaches to the dominant theme in "The Windhover." Thomas chooses to view the poem's theme through what he feels are its sources, citing as the major source Hopkin's life as a Jesuit. Thomas' articulation of the central paradox of the poem, then, is in the terms of the ascetic life which the Jesuit poet would have experienced: Hopkins, the priest, desires to obtain spiritual glory/gain through sacrificing a secular life for one of religious tasks. Thomas suggests that this priestly life is metaphorically pictured in two distinct manners, one in the octave the other in the sestet. Within the octave, Thomas believes that the chivalric terms suggest the first metaphorical picture-a religious man as a knight of Christ. He adds, further, that both the terminology and the picture itself have their source in the Jesuit handbook Spiritual Exercises. In Thomas' opinion, the poem's chivalric words blend "perfectly with the Ignatian ideal of a Jesuit as a knight of Christ" (498). According to this metaphor, the Jesuit, like a knight, would give up the painless, peaceful life to wage exhausting battles and suffer devilish wounds in his spiritual war, but would ultimately gain a crown of everlasting glory. This is the heroic version that is drawn in the octave.

In the sestet, however, there is a less glamorous representation of the ascetic life (particularly recorded in the last three lines). Thomas explains that Hopkins' own experience provides a source for this section of his sonnet, as well as intruding upon the poem in line twelve: "[Hopkins'] imitation of Christ took the unromantic form of meticulously carrying out the dreary duties assigned him, thereby living out his own line 'sheer plod makes plough down sillion/Shine'" (501). In this more pragmatic view of the life of a Jesuit, the priest relinquishes his worldly freedoms to dully plod away at religious chores, hoping thereby to "shine" his halo in preparation for heaven. Thomas, then, approaches "The Windhover" on the experiential level of the poet-priest, finding the central theme expressed in the spiritual gains of the often tedious Jesuit life.

Peter Milward opts to discipline himself, remaining on the literal level of the "The Windhover" in his exploration of the poem's paradoxical theme. According to his approach, the octave simply depicts a falcon sacrificing some amount of effort through its battle with the wind in order to obtain pleasure for itself and its viewer. The sestet, Milward believes, literally represents the poet's sacrificial servitude to Christ which allows Hopkins to be a more effective force against evil. Milward adeptly describes his perception of the octave in this manner:

There is thus an intense, if unseen, struggle, a pitting of strength between mighty opposites, the bird on the one hand and the wind on the other....In this struggle the bird maintains his mastery over the wind, and from it he derives a feeling of ecstasy, which is in turn conveyed to the watching poet.

With the last phrase of this final sentence, Milward neatly makes his transition from the bird to the poet (octave to sestet).

Moving toward his interpretation of the sestet, Milward suggests that it is the ecstatic success of the bird's struggle which inspires the poet to attempt similarly to dominate over the evil spiritual winds within himself (51). According to Milward, Hopkins realizes, however, that this subduing of evil forces cannot be achieved by "striding/High." "Paradoxically, it is to be achieved not by mastery, but by service" (51). Milward reaches this interpretation by suggesting that in the first half of the sestet Hopkins is literally speaking of his heart as "buckling in humble submission to Christ" (52). This buckling entails the painful sacrifice of human "pride," but according to Hopkins' chief principle: "Once this condition [of sacrifice] is fulfilled..., then the fire of divine love that will break from [the poet] will be immeasurably lovelier and more effective-more 'dangerous' against his spiritual enemies" (52). Milward asserts that the second half of the sestet is comprised of two literal (and more earthy) examples of Hopkins' central theme: the sacrifice of labour from the plodding ploughman and the painful galling of the embers brings the glow of heavenly "gold" (53). Milward, then, by limiting himself to the literal level of the poem has discovered Hopkins' paradoxical theme expressed in the beauty achieved by the laboring bird and the wounded ember, and he has revealed the spiritual power that the poet gains by his difficult relinquishing of pride and his arduous service to Christ.

Donald McChesney lays his critical foundation on the literal images of the poem, but he discovers the ultimate working out of the achievement-through-sacrifice on the metaphorical level. He might summarize the poem's theme in this manner: Christ was not only a glorious master of the heavens (like the windhover), but he was also a willing "redemptive sacrifice" who manifested "the hidden splendor of sacrificial suffering " (like the hidden splendor of the "plough" and the "blue beak embers"). McChesney asserts that Hopkins uses the windhover as the vehicle in his attempt to describe the lofty grandeur of Christ with a metaphor from nature. This is the greatness of which Christ divests himself when he imprisons himself in flesh. McChesney notes, however, that Christ's confinement was not without its reward. For Hopkins uses the "plough" and the "embers" as the vehicles of his metaphorical description of the concealed glory which is resident in Christ's trying sacrifice (66). Finally, McChesney concludes by citing an interesting additional relationship between the tenor and vehicles of Hopkins' metaphors. "Beside this beauty of voluntary redemptive sacrifice, the beauty of the natural and created order is nothing; in fact, the latter [nature as the vehicle] can find no consummation without the former [Christ, the tenor]" (66). He perceptively identifies the winning of eternal life through the sacrifice of Christ's galling cross experience as the impetus behind this paradoxical principle. McChesney, then, finds in "The Windhover" a metaphorical representation of Christ's victory through sacrificial defeat.

Romano Guardini, taking a similar approach, believes that the literal level of the poem is simply a metaphorical springboard for a description of Christ, a living example of the poem's paradoxical principle. He believes that the metaphorical description of Christ begins before his incarnation: Christ as a spirit (bird) took on the pain of flesh (buckle), toiled (plough), and suffered death (fall, gall), and thereby gained glorious eternal life (gold-vermillion). He centers his summary of the poem's metaphorical message around the crucial word "buckle." Speaking, at first, in general germs, he states:

A greatness that even now had captured the imagination by its freedom and magnificence is, as it were, dethroned: "Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume"-all these are invoked-"Here/Buckle!" However the word "buckle" may be explicated, it includes the meaning that what was before free in the heights, surrounded by light, unlimited...must now yield to or overcome a thing that dwells in the lower darkness, constricted, care-worn, yet, in truth, greater.

Guardini, of course, identifies Christ as the magnificent tenor of Hopkins' metaphor: It is Christ who yields his freedom for a constriction which is, in truth, greater. In order to explain Hopkins' paradoxical thesis, Guardini is drawn to the writings of the apostle Paul: "He who formerly lived in the divine light, through the Incarnation 'emptied himself, taking the form of a servant' (Phil 2.7). Once like a falcon, he is now like a serf bound to the plough" (78). Guardini even incorporates the galled embers into his metaphorical explanation: "the suffering Christ whose wounds gape blood-red [gold-vermillion embers] in the struggle for redemption yet gleam like gold [gold-vermillion embers] because of His secret glory" (79). Guardini threads his interpretation from the literal world of the falcon through the eye of Hopkin's buckle and into the metaphorical world of the Christ, discovering the eternal worth of Christ's sacrificial, crimson, blood.

Bruce Wallis also chooses to approach Hopkins' basic theme through metaphor. He formulates the principle in terms of Christ's sacrifice of His divinity to win man's salvation. Wallis' technique is to begin with a single metaphor, which he believes has been incorrectly interpreted until the present, and then to branch out to show how he thinks this crucial metaphor affects the entire poem. Wallis takes issue with the traditional view of the falcon as a horseman. He explains his reasons for questioning this interpretation: "The image...not only contradicts the language through which the bird is presented, but also both weakens the turn in the sonnet and severely undermines the theological implication with which the sonnet is infused." Wallis feels that to interpret the falcon as riding in a chariot is more appropriate. He believes that this image draws in an allusion to the majestic sun god Apollo, who better than a clumsy horseman represents the Son of God (27). He supports this interpretation by citing passages in the poem which seem to describe the more graceful movements of a chariot as opposed to the jerky movements of a horse (27).

After presenting and defending his alternate interpretation, Wallis steps back and tries to explain the importance of this interpretation to the entire poem:

The distinction is crucial, for the image of the bird in complete and proud control reinforces the distinction between the octet and the sestet, where bird and Christ are in absolute majesty and dominion, and the sestet, whereby a deliberate act of humility ("air, pride, plume here/Buckle"), both bird and Christ plunge earthward-bird in pursuit of prey, Christ to the state of manhood and the death of the cross. (27)

Wallis, believes further that the image of the bird as a charioteer adds to the majesty of the octave and, therefore, increases the contrast between the octave and the sestet (i.e. it emphasizes the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice). However, more important, in the eyes of Wallis, is the fact that the image of a chariot incorporates the mythology of the sun god Apollo. And in Hopkins' Christian context, the chariot implies "the presence of the Son of God" (27). Wallis, then, believes that the metaphor of the bird as charioteer is essential to Hopkins' paradoxical expression: Christ earned eternal life by sacrificing his divine dominion to suffer as a man.

C.J. Tweedy employs a fascinating overlaying of the literal and symbolic levels of the "The Windhover" to express the poem's theme. He finds that for the literal bird, the gain is that of his prey, resulting from the bird's fight with the wind; and for the symbolic Christ, the gain is eternal life, resulting from his fight with the flesh. Tweedy is probably unique in his view of the sestet as continuing the literal story of the falcon. He argues his interpretation in this manner:

Probably most people would agree that the kestrel is rather gradually revealed by the glory of its life in the octave as a symbol of Christ as Lord, and that the sestet relates more to Christ as the hero on earth...crucified-yet still, I think, actively symbolized in the kestrel. In terms of the bird, the octave as I see it, is about the flight of the kestrel: the sestet about its stoop.

A specific example of Tweedy's singular view may be found in his literal explanation of lines ten and eleven: "The 'fire that breaks from thee then' I see as the sudden revelation of the beautiful rufous...colour on the male kestrel's upper parts as it turns...to dive-lovely indeed, but also to the prey below most 'dangerous'" (89). Finally, Tweedy descends to the last line of the poem, wrapping the literal and symbolic levels into one neat, paradoxical package:

Did not Hopkins feel himself at times-and perhaps all men at times-to be the minute prey of a great and terrible, but beautiful and ultimately loving and merciful God? Death, I would suggest-in the "gashed" prey (still present even with the "embers" metaphor: this sonnet is all about the kestrel, as well as much else)-is seen, as the Crucifixion is, as a terrible but merciful moment of transformation into the new (and perhaps Risen) Life. (89)

Tweedy, then, through a literal and symbolic study of "The Windhover" decides that "Death" is the key term to the central paradoxical issue: through Hopkins' picture of Christ's death, the reader is to realize that his own death (i.e. painful sacrifice of life) will gain him entrance into heaven.

Raymond Schoder chooses to deal chiefly with the symbolism of "The Windhover." He views the images of the poem as being powerful symbols of Christ: both as a high riding chevalier and as a heroic sufferer, Christ inspires the poet's heart to desire to follow Christ's sacrificial example. Schoder first explains the symbolism of Christ as a chevalier: "The falcon is not only a vividly real nature object, but becomes...a symbol, a revelation of Christ, Who also stirs the mind to admiration with His utterly intrepid comportment in the face of opposition" (298). He next describes his symbolic interpretation of Christ as the suffering hero in the sestet:

For Hopkins, Christ is the supreme Hero of all time, Who of His own free choice undertook the greatest, most painful and terrifying mission ever laid on man's shoulders, and with inexpressible heroism flowing from infinite love and selfless dedication carried through the mighty struggle unto death, even on a cross, to the final triumphant "It is consummated." (289)

Both of these symbolic pictures create in the observer a desire to have this principle of salvation through bold sacrifice working in his own life. Schoder further explains the symbolic significance of the embers and the plough: "The law of glory through struggle, he thus reminds his heart..., prevails not only when the struggle is one of joy, as with the falcon, but also when it implies pain and the wearisome cross of undiversified drudgery, as in the galled ember and plodding plough" (302). Schoder, then, finds evident in the symbolism of "The Windhover" the case "law of glory through struggle": the decision for Christ in the case of Christ vs. The Flesh established the precedent, and now man through painful trial may obtain the same verdict.

Perhaps, the paradoxical theme of "The Windhover" may be approached on one final level, structure. If the central theme of the poem is that some positive end may be achieved through the sacrifice of an individual, then surely the form of the poem will support this message. The form which Hopkins chooses is comprised of three parts. This three-part structure may be abstracted in this way: first, Hopkins establishes that there is something to sacrifice, then he records the actual sacrifice, and finally he implies the gains from the sacrifice. Beginning on the broadest level, Hopkins structures his entire poem, as Guardini suggests, in a manner which ably bears his theme: Christ (as symbolized by the falcon) first exists as an all-powerful spirit in the octave, then he sacrifices this glory in the sestet to be painfully strapped to the flesh, to laboriously plough, and to be galled, killed. The light images of the sestet, however, imply the salvational gain of Christ's sacrificial death. The "fire," the "shine," and the shimmering "gold" suggest that Christ's sacrifice will be the light which leads to the Father's heavenly realm.

Hopkins, however, also employs his three-part structure on a more intricate level. The octave itself contains this three-fold, message-supporting structure. First, Hopkins establishes the majesty of the falcon ("morning's minion" and "daylight's dauphin"). Next, he records the struggle of the bird ("off, off forth on swing" 5); this would at least have been a sacrifice of a great amount of energy. Finally, Hopkins records the success of this sacrifice, the inspiring of the poet ("My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird" 7-8). This inspiration at the very least gained for the poet his favorite poem.

The next example of Hopkin's conforming his message to his structure occurs on a still smaller scale:

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that brakes from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

From eight lines, Hopkins compresses his message into three. He begins by establishing the grandeur of Christ (or the bird) with his list of "brute beauty and valour," etc. The sacrifice is expressed in the word "Buckle"-no matter what the other possible interpretations of this word may be, "buckle" definitely contains the sense of giving up the preceding list of proud qualities. The gain from this sacrifice is an eternal-life "fire that breaks from" Christ which is incredibly lovely for the believer and terribly "dangerous" for the unrepentant sinner.

Finally, Hopkins distills his paradox into a single word unit: "gold-vermillion." Within the context of the poem "gold" is a symbol of the same princely riches that Hopkins established in his octave. This is followed by "vermillion," the bloody color which symbolizes Christ's sacrifice in the sestet. Finally, the gain may be seen by looking at the entire unit. The gold tinted, blood-red color evokes an image of the streets of gold upon which the blood-washed saints will stand because of the sacrifice of Christ's vermillion blood. It can be seen, therefore, that Hopkins uses a three part structure to inform his three-fold theme, also adding compressed force to his message by methodically reducing his structural message into smaller units each more potent than the last.

Hopkins infuses the fourteen short lines of "The Windhover" with an existential, literal, metaphorical, symbolic, and structural expression of the central, life-giving paradox of salvation history. The apostle Paul chose to explain this essential principle through the science of exposition. Hopkins, however, decided to express the hidden heart of the gospel through the art of poetry. Both men were master communicators:

Christ Jesus, who being in the form of Daylight's dauphin, thought it not robbery to be equal with the King-:

But emptied himself of all pride, and took upon himself to buckle to the form of a ploughman.

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto galling, even the gold-vermillion death of the cross.

For this reader, Hopkins has chosen the favorable mode of expression. The poetics of "The Windhover" reverberate with the resonance of the fundamental principle of the gospel: "The Windhover" represents "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed."

 

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