"'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. ...
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...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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