Wild words: reflections on nature poetry

One of our volunteers at Teifi Marshes Welsh Wildlife Centre is Diane Davies. She has written this piece on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Windhover”. Diane was an English lecturer and has a particular interest in wildlife iconography in poetry.

Kestrel/windhover by  Vaughn Matthews

Kestrel/windhover by Vaughn Matthews

Wildlife and nature have always figured large in poetry. We might call to mind Shelley addressing his skylark (‘The blue deep thou wingest, /And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest’); or Ted Hughes’s hawk telling us there is ‘no falsifying dream/ Between my hooked head and hooked feet’.

Some poets celebrate the moments of calm we find in the natural world; others are in awe of its ferocity and wildness. While weaker poems have used nature merely as a backdrop, the best have brought us closer to it and helped us appreciate its value.

Of course, we don’t go to poetry to learn facts about the natural world. My Reader’s Digest book on birds will tell me a lot more about the kestrel, for instance, than Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous sonnet ‘The Windhover’ (‘windhover’ is an old dialect term for kestrel). Yet the poem stays a lot longer in the mind. It was written in May 1877 but not published until 1918:

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Fal-con, 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 ecstacy! 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.

Kestrel or windhover by Ian Hopkins

Kestrel or windhover by Ian Hopkins

Whether you have encountered this poem before or not, my guess is that you don’t find its meanings particularly transparent. Hopkins’s experimental use of language comes as a shock, for example when he defies conventional word order in ‘the rolling underneath him steady air’ or comes up with ‘dapple-dawn-drawn falcon’. Far from following the conventional rules (including those of punctuation), he does his utmost to flout them. Yet, in doing so he also refreshes and extends their meaning potential. He also uses internal rhyme and a stress-based rhythm to bring his subjects vividly to life, borrowing some effects from Welsh poetic forms. The reader can’t escape puzzles and ambiguities, but the poem’s energy and originality make it compelling and memorable.

Commentators usually point out that Hopkins, whose talent was unrecognised in his lifetime but who is now seen as the most original and ‘modern’ of the Victorian poets, became a Jesuit priest and wrote poetry exploring the relationship between the spiritual and natural worlds. The poem’s dedication ‘To Christ our Lord’ makes the spiritual dimension explicit, but the striking description of the kestrel, its hovering and its plunge to the ground, has its origins in a real experience of wildlife.

In the first eight lines (the octet) the poet tells us he first ‘caught’ (sight of) the kestrel in the early morning, calling it ‘morning’s minion’ or slave, as well as the ‘dauphin’ or crown prince of the ‘kingdom of daylight’. The bird is a ‘dapple-dawn-drawn falcon’, suggesting its mottled pattern is just
visible in the dawn light. The kestrel is hovering or ‘riding’ a thermal (‘his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air’), and seems to be ‘striding’ as it does so. This horse and rider imagery, along with words like ‘valour’ and ‘chevalier’ later, recall the medieval image of Christ as a knight on horseback. For a while, the bird ‘rung’ or rose in a sort of spiral (‘rung’ comes from falconry) ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’, an image of that movement being controlled by the folding of its wing.

Then it turns off on a wide bend like a skater, its flight assured enough to ‘rebuff’ or master the wind. The poet has so far hidden his true feelings, but he now expresses a longing and admiration: his heart ‘stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing’. The kestrel or Christ figure
instils both fear and devotion in the poet as believer.

In the second part (the sestet) Hopkins describes the kestrel’s sudden plunge to the ground. ‘Buckle’ has several possible meanings, but the most likely is that all the bird’s qualities (‘brute beauty’, ‘valour’, etc.) now concentrate into one combined action. Here the imagery seems intended to fuse the natural and the spiritual worlds as the kestrel (still the knight or ‘chevalier’) takes on fuller significance as the object of the poet’s devotion. There is a shift, too, from the use of ‘he’ to ‘thee’, so he may now be addressing the kestrel more directly as symbol of Christ, whose ‘fire’ or glory is ‘a billion times told lovelier and more dangerous’ than that of any single creature. In the last three lines, however, he concludes that this is ‘no wonder’ or miracle at all, since in fact the glory is reflected in the ordinary world. Illustrating this, he notes that a plough will shine brightly as it is pulled along the ‘sillion’ (an old term for a strip of land granted to monasteries to farm) and polished by the turning earth. And even the ‘blue-bleak embers’ of a fire can rekindle as they scatter and break open (‘Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion’).

‘The Windhover’ makes obvious demands on us, but it also celebrates the wildlife that we, too, wonder at and want to protect. Poetry can help us make connections with our environment, strengthening the sense of a shared universe. A poem can be a journey to new and familiar places, towards the experiences of others past and present, and towards our inner selves.

Diane Davies