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Catching Fire: "The Windhover".

   I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom
     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. (PW, p. 144)


Because "The Windhover" has for a long time seemed to me misrepresented by its commentators, I take this occasion to propose a new reading, one that stems from redescribing Hopkins's grammar in the sestet. (I will present my argument in brief, then retrace evidence for it in the poem as a whole.) The word "Buckle!"--that famous crux--creates the problem of interpretation because it determines consequences for the rest of the poem. Hopkins's remarkable series of nouns opening the sestet--"Brute beauty," "valour," "act," "air," "pride," "plume"--has been read almost always as the compound subject of the verb "Buckle!" (apparently on the grounds that nouns precede their predicates). "Buckle," then, becomes a descriptive verb in the present indicative, to which all six nouns must somehow be attached as subject: they all "buckle." (1)

This reading, I believe, originates from a fundamental mistaking of Hopkins's grammar. The six-noun series is not the subject but rather the direct object of "Buckle," and the verb is an injunction uttered by the poet to himself: "Buckle [to yourself] brute beauty," and so on. The entire plural direct object here precedes its verb. Exactly the same template--the prepositioned direct object followed by a second-person command to the self--appears more simply in the opening line of another sonnet: "My own heart let me more have pity on," that is, "Let me more have pity on my own heart." (The same sonnet immediately adds a prepositioned indirect object in "Let / Me live to my sad self hereafter kind," where normal syntax would require "kind to my sad self.") The prepositioning of a direct object, unusual in English, is common in Latin: Horace provides a double direct object of prepositioned contrastive nouns in Epistles xi, 27: "Coelum, non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt": "Those who run across the sea change the sky above, but not their soul." (2) Hopkins likes the compression and momentary semantic instability of such a Latin template carried over into English and has a perhaps unfounded confidence in his reader's capacity to recognize that a set of nouns--beauty, valour, act, air, pride, plume--can be the compound direct object of the verb "Buckle." (3) The abstract nouns of the list belong to such different terrestrial and celestial categories that a modern reader may not easily group them as a compound "word," as Hopkins does. (4) In conjoining the qualities of the windhover so intimately in a single line, through a group of its abstracted essences, Hopkins "inscapes" the bird as the sum of these abstractions. He sets us a riddle: what living thing exhibits all these qualities at once? The windhover is a creature most at home in the air; it possesses plumes; it is beautiful in the manner in which brutes--nonhuman animals (5)--can be characterized as Having beauty; it exhibits vedouv as it rebuffs the big wind; and as a dauphin it warrants royal pride. Hopkins's past-tense octave had offered only a temporal succession of visual and kinetic descriptions: without such preceding narrative episodes, the rush and sweep of the summary inscaping list would be nonreferential, unintelligible. Conversely, if Hopkins had given us the bird only narratively, action by action, observation by observation, the exhilaration of suddenly inscaping the bird into a single complex gestalt would have remained unrepresented.

Hopkins marks the change from octave-observation to sestet-inscaping in three ways: he separates, by a white space, the perceptual octave from the conceptual sestet; he forsakes past narration for a present injunction to himself; and he summarizes the bird's qualities in the abstract. Hopkins has watched and inventoried and admired the bird's individual motions until they "come home" to him as potentially symbolic: (6) it is the second-order grasp of the whole that is represented by the summarizing essence-abstractions of the sestet opening. When Hopkins urges himself ("Buckle!") to the imaginative effort of receptive inscaping, he hopes thereby to intuit avian being as a symbol available for his own being. (7) His effort is ecstatically rewarded: Hopkins feels ("oh") the brilliance of creative transformation, as the sense image, once its sense-perceived characteristics are conceptually abstracted into their essences, becomes a coherent form integrating itself into his own person. (8) The poet hopes, as he utters his injunction, to internalize that coherent form as identity (I am the windhover) rather than as difference (it is an animal species), but the injunction is--as is it initially uttered--still merely a hope. As Wallace Stevens reluctantly observes, "It is not every day that the world arranges itself in a poem" (p. 905).

The sudden transfiguring of the world into intelligibility--brought about by a stunning fusion of sense, intellectual imagination, (9) memory, will, and personal individuality--is often Hopkins's subject, and critics (by ignoring the last four lines of "The Windhover") have brought forward other ecstatic poems they find similar to "The Windhover" (and employ as means to interpret "The Windhover"). I propose, by contrast, to differentiate such poems from "The Windhover," believing that the comparands arrive at closure via theological strategies no longer possible to the Hopkins of "The Windhover."

Critics have especially instanced "God's Grandeur" (PW, p. 139), because its "flame" and "shining" appear so close to the "fire" and "shine" of "The Windhover" and perhaps also because the phrase "It gathers to a greatness" suggests a fluid, voluntary assembling of successive aspects into a gestalt. Or critics have likened "Hurrahing in Harvest" (PW, p. 148) to "The Windhover" because it argues the indispensability of human emotional response if nature is to be represented in language. In "Hurrahing," Hopkins presents the landscape and skyscape as present before the approach of the human beholder, the sole creature able, with religious intention, to "glean our Saviour" from the autumn scenes: "These things, these things were here and but the beholder / Wanting." However, that anterior moment of the unobserved landscape, so important to "Hurrahing," does not appear in "The Windhover": the sonnet presents no unsymbolic "before" prefacing the enraptured response of a human being. Rather, it begins from the immediate felt intoxication of visual instress, "I caught." Unlike "Hurrahing in Harvest," "The Windhover" makes no explicit equation between a natural phenomenon and God: it does not assert that "the azurous hung hills are His world-wielding shoulder." (10) In "The Windhover," as in "Hurrahing in Harvest," the heart rears wings, but the wings of "The Windhover" are reared not by sensing a heavenly "reply" but rather by material means: visually by the bird's actions in the octave; emotionally in the exclamatory "oh" of line 7; phonetically by the inscape-chime assimilating the bird outside and the stirred heart inside; (11) and imaginatively when the windhover's inscape becomes a mirror of the poet's own in the climactic "AND." At the close of "Hurrahing," the wings of the heart are still beating in rapture, whereas "The Windhover" has Inst its wines in the desolate climax of the fiery embers.

Another poem frequently brought into conjunction with "The Windhover" (as embodying a supposedly comparable exultation) is "The Starlight Night" (PW, p. 139). In that sonnet Hopkins addresses a fellow Christian, urging him to "Look at the stars!" and recommending to him, in the homiletic sestet, "Prayer, patience, alms, vows." In the first part of "The Windhover," however, the poet is alone watching the bird, and he addresses solely himself in "here / Buckle!" Nor can the poet of "The Windhover" bring himself to end with a theological and redemptive tableau such as the vision of "Christ and his mother" behind the "piece-bright paling" of the stars. No Holy Ghost broods "over the bent / World" (PW, p. 139) of "The Windhover"; the poet cannot even address a deus absconditus as he does in "Comforter, where, where is your comforting?" (PW, p. 182). In "The Windhover," inscaping, no matter how ecstatic initially, does not declare (as "Hurrahing" does) an erotic reciprocity between heaven and earth: "And eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet gave you a / Rapturous love's greeting of realer, of rounder, replies?" (PW, p. 149). In short, Hopkins in "The Windhover" cannot take--as he does elsewhere--a path that connects the joy of eye or ear to a divine presence, whether by elevating sense experience into a religious spectacle or by delivering a homiletic address to a fellow believer or by taking consolation in the presence of the Holy Ghost or even by urging a simple liturgical act--"Praise Him."

The sonnet "As kingfishers catch fire" (brought into conjunction with "The Windhover" because of its "fire" and its reiterated motions of "selving") voices its species manifestations not in essence-nominalizations ("valour," "pride," etc.) but, more simply, by active verbs set in a reiterated parallel syntax: subject, predicate, object. Kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame, and so on until--with "the just man justices"--Hopkins appends a confident active ethics to his prefacing aesthetics and appoints to natural selving a theological close: "Christ plays in ten thousand places" (PW, p. 141). The sestet of "The Windhover" abjures such theological or ethical or homiletic diction. How, then, is Hopkins to invent a new form of closure? Instead of a "Christian" ending, he must generate a "secular" one, inscribing a sestet faithful not only to his ecstatic visual octave but also to his own skepticism and suffering. It is in the sestet--after the nexus of "No wonder of it"--that he must acknowledge and inscape his own anguish into symbolic form without imposing on it theological or ethical interpretation. "The Windhover" is a sonnet of the earth, not of heaven.

All readers of Hopkins know his stringent honesty, his bafflement at his "failures," and his constitutional depression. Although he was speaking truly of his existence as he conceived it when he said, "I have never wavered in my vocation," (12) commentators who deduce from that statement that "The Windhover" must be referred to his vocation cannot easily defend their practice. (13) Because ingenuities of alarming inapplicability have arisen over time, most commentators, such as the expert Norman MacKenzie, have thrown up their hands; as MacKenzie dryly says in his commentary, "Buckle!" is "a much disputed word." (14) If we apply to "The Windhover" Wallace Stevens's proposal that every poem "is a poem within a poem: the poem of the idea within the poem of the words" (p. 91), the poem of the striking idea of "The Windhover" appears summarized in the compact sestet abstractions. Presented as a conceived idea, the active, moving feathered bird can be inscaped into a coherent second-order set of philosophical and aesthetic values. The poetry of the words of the poem is, by contrast, surprising, at times shocking. The diction of the octave, seemingly "all in a rush / With richness" ("Spring"), exhibits nonetheless a remarkable ascesis of both sense and intellect: we are given no color, no shape, no birdsong, no overt biblical or mythological allusions, nothing but motions. And what is distinctly unusual is that Hopkins represents the bird's motions by nouns, not verbs. Yes, the nouns have been made from verbs ("riding," from "to ride," etc.), but still they are nouns: not the infinitives of "I saw this morning the falcon ride, glide" or (using the past tense) "The falcon before me rode the air." Since the octave retrospectively recalls an event of "this morning," it is necessarily voiced in the past tense, but it would not serve Hopkins's desired pattern of exhilarating kinesis to describe the falcon's actions in the past tense, as a set of "stills." Such a choice would render the bird an object grasped photographically at separate times, as he "rode" at one moment and "strode" at another. Instead, Hopkins takes care of pastness with a single past-tense verb--"I caught"--and lets his gerunds transform the past into a deceptive present of dynamic motion: "I observed him in his riding." Hopkins generalizes each individual motion of the bird into a type of motion--the motion of gliding, the motion of striding. (15)

I make this point about Hopkins's insistence on gerunds in lieu of tensed verbs chiefly because of the poet's fierce compelling of each of the eight lines of the octave to end in "-ing" (as though "wing" and "swing"--both potential verbs, both here used as nouns--were merely other forms of "verbing"). Only when we arrive at the single non-verb-associated "-ing"--"thing"--do we imagine that there is in that noun no sense of motion. Yet by using a noun ending in "-ing" as the final summation of the gorgeous "-ing" motions of the octave, Hopkins suggests in "thing" an active quality, first via the aura of the rest of the verbal "-ing" words in the octave and more immediately via its two preceding nouns-created-from-verbs: "The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!'" (16) By putting those exclamations themselves into nominal form--transforming the verb "achieve" into a noun ("the achieve") and adding a noun ("mastery") derived from the verb "to master"--Hopkins has brought the bird's actions under two abstract verb-nouns, thereby propelling it toward the clustering of six abstract nouns that "gathers" the bird-as-perceived into the bird-as-internalized.

The nouns in the inscape list--by comparison to the preceding "achieve" and "mastery"--are "real" nouns. They do not derive from verbs: "beauty" and "valour" and "air" and "plume" and "pride" are indubitably and only nouns. And although "act" can (in different syntax) be a verb, here, introduced in apposition with its co-qualities, it is a noun. MacKenzie brilliantly notes that the six inscape nouns are arranged in a chiasmus: "the three components of the kestrel's perfection are re-analysed in reverse order (chiasmus); 'Beauty' pairs with 'plume,' 'valour' with 'pride,' 'act' with 'air'" (PW, p. 382). He does not, however, ask why Hopkins uses this conspicuous ordering--1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1.1 believe it is to render the bird-inscape complete and final as it "rounds on itself," coming full circle, "clicking" to prevent further expansion of the list beyond the named six.

Because of Hopkins's nominalizing of motion (via gerunds) in the octave, we are struck by his abrupt change, in the sestet, to indicative verbs of motion: "makes [to] shine," "fall," "gall themselves," and "gash." The effortful "sheer plod" of the ploughman makes the ploughshare, abraded by the soil, shine (MacKenzie notes the source in Theocritus and Virgil): and though the ploughman's repetitive and tiring act seems voluntary, one is not sure he is independent of compulsion by a master. The second verb is entirely involuntary: the embers "fall." The third verb is both reflexive and involuntary: the embers "gall themselves" (there is no outside agent; the humanized embers, by falling, have encountered pain through physical collision). And the fourth verb, "gash," is used deviantly, intransitively (by analogy, I believe, with "gush," as "to gush blood" is the implied figure). (17)

Critics understandably bring into comparison here the late sonnet on St. Alphonsus Rodriguez (PW, p. 200), since in its "galled" and "gash" it indubitably echoes the earlier poem. But here "gash" is grammatically conventional as a transitive verb: battle strokes "gashed flesh":
   Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
   And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
   Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
   And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day. (PW, p. 200) (18)


The opening "flashed" of "St. Alphonsus" phonetically anticipates "gashed," bringing fire and wounding together, but "gash" and "gall" here, unlike their counterparts in "The Windhover," are neither self-reflexive nor involuntary. Nothing will "trumpet" the shine of the plough or the self-galling embers; nothing will give "tongue" as the embers "gash" gold-vermilion. The later lines of "St. Alphonsus" describing "the [spiritual] war within," ought--if "St. Alphonsus" were actually similar in theme to "The Windhover"--to align themselves in sentiment with the inward "fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion" of the broken embers, but they do not: instead, they calmly adduce not any suffering of St. Alphonsus but the providential agency of God:
   Yet God ...
   Could crowd career with conquest while there went
   Those years and years by of world without event
   That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door. (PW, p. 201)


This sestet, unlike that of "The Windhover," introduces divine power as its guarantee of Alphonsus's saintly "conquest": in the syntactic space between the subject, "God," and the secure predicate, "Could crowd career with conquest," Hopkins inserts divine motions that range from the grandeur of hewing out mountains to the delicacy of veining violets. If God can do these worldwide things, always adding "more and more," he will crown with victory the invisible fortitude of the humble Spanish lay brother (whom Hopkins touchingly calls by his domestic Spanish name, "Alfonso"). This is a consolatory theological ending, quite unlike the ending of "The Windhover," which is at once tragic (for the embers) and sublime (in their compensatory brilliance). It takes no divine intervention for the embers to "fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion." The allusive religious suggestions that some readers find hovering about "fall" and "gall" are not made explicit, as they are in the sonnets invoking theological closure. One must, to see the distinctiveness of "The Windhover," acknowledge Hopkins's choice of a "secular" ending for his poem in contrast to the "sacred" endings of sonnets that are sometimes invoked to buttress a religious interpretation of "The Windhover."

One cannot write about "The Windhover" without taking up the question of the poet's addresses and their putative addressees. In the octave, Hopkins addresses nobody: he does not exhort a listener to look at the stars or practice prayer or penance, nor does he address Christ. Instead, after watching the bird, he looks only within himself, using echo as the phonetic figure of fusion, describing his "heart in hiding" as it "stirred" in its intimate response to the "bird." (19) The sestet, however, makes multiple verbal gestures of address. (20) Hopkins begins the sestet, as I have argued, by addressing himself, enjoining himself to "buckle" the bird's qualities onto himself, "here." He then addresses someone as "O my chevalier," announcing to the chevalier the result of the desired buckling on of the abstract qualities "here" (alliteration tells us that "here" is in the "heart" in "hiding"). To whom is this account of the consequence addressed? It initiates a colloquy: whoever is addressed is now a companion to Hopkins. This companion is the bird, who has been translated by inscape from the third-person "morning's minion" to a figure addressed in the second person (as "thee") (21) and dignified into a member of the poet's household--"my chevalier."

The results of the buckling on are phrased as a habitual consequence: whenever the buckling is, or is being, accomplished, "the fire that breaks from thee then" is "a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous" than the bird's fire within before it broke forth. If Christ is said by the poet (in "As kingfishers catch fire") to play in "ten thousand places," what must the billion-fold symbolic fire be that goes beyond the indefiniteness often thousand" and beyond the hyperbole of "million" into the realm of the symbolically infinite? With Hopkins's "then" we pass from the poem's opening dawn (where the dauphin bird was "minion" to the king of the "kingdom of daylight") to full sunrise (compare the analogous effect of the bursting forth of light in Haydn's Creation or in Bach's "Bricht an" from The Christmas Oratorio.) The moment of the poet's inscaping of the bird is meant to shock with its extravagant statement that the bird's "vital fire" ("A Candle Indoors") is now a "billion" times lovelier than its appearance when it was merely registered from the bird's natural motions. As the bird is creatively transformed from a visual object to a personal symbol, Hopkins's intuition that he and the bird meet on the plane of essences causes an internal explosion of radiance. What is it that bursts like sunlight upon the self when the bird's essential qualities inform, and are informed by, the poet's own? It is a flashing increase in self-intelligibility by an order of magnitude unattainable by intellectual introspection. (22)

I pause for a moment to consider whether, for Hopkins, such exaltation within inscaping can occur independent of religious feeling. Not everyone believes it can, but it does, evidently, in "Moonrise June 19 1876":
   I awoke in the Midsummer not-to-call night, | in the white and the
      walk of the morning:
   The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe | of a fingernail held
      to the candle,
   Or paring of paradisaical fruit, | lovely in waning but lustreless,
   Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, | of dark
      Maenefa the mountain;
   A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, | entangled him,
      not quit utterly.
   This was the prized, the desirable sight, | unsought, presented so
      easily,
   Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, | eyelid and eyelid of
      slumber. (PW, p. 131)


In this exceptionally beautiful and paradoxical poem, the poet, in early dawn, awakes to the sight of the rising moon emerging from behind Maenefa, the nearby Welsh mountain. The moon might seem--at the opening of the poem--a purely lovely sight, analogized humanly as a backlit crescent of fingernail and then mythologically as the paring of a "paradisaical" (not "paradisal") fruit. Yet the verbs accompanying those analogies are ones of exhaustion: "dwindled" and "thinned." And although the waning moon is "lovely," it is also "lustreless." Onto the poet's intense aesthetic response to the visual tableau, he, it seems, projects his own "waning and lustreless" state. By the end, however, the sight has paradoxically become "prized" and "desirable." The poet's receptivity to the tableau's "instress" has stimulated the creative intensity of inscaping it now as a different possible symbol of his own state. When the poet wakes, the anxieties of the working day do not yet intrude; there can be no neglect of duty in his gaze because the hours of duty have not yet begun. In this intermediate time between sleep and duty, the poet records an inscaping that needs no appended theological vision. Watching the moon's self-freeing motion, the poet inscapes together, as figure and ground, the uprising white moon (its whiteness transferred to "the white and the walk of the morning") and its sinister "fanged" black background. The absence of anxiety and the presence of repose prolong the poet's gaze at the unexpected and unsought gift that has allowed its own second inscaping not visually but psychologically: feeling the reassuring comfort of the reliable "law of rising" that frees the moon and penetrates his heart, the poet, consoled, remains arrested in open-eyed wonder.

Strangely, "Moonrise" seems at first glance to excuse itself from engaging in any striking rhythmic or prosodic effect that would interfere with the poet's night hymn of peace: it is unrhymed; it is not a sonnet; it does not read as blank verse; it avoids the sharp encounters of "sprung" rhythm; each line ends in an unstressed syllable softening the passage to the next line; and the poet, in each line, marks with a printed divider the medial caesura, always arriving peaceably in the same place (after the fourth beat) and therefore predictable and harmonious, matching the poem's undisturbed narrative and its concluding wonder. As we come to the end of the poem, however, we note that there is, after all, something prosodically symbolic here but visible only in retrospect:

"The prized, the desirable sight" is cast in a shape representing formal perfection, framed as a seven-lined poem written in lines of seven beats each--the number seven squared, so to speak. (23)

There is no religious instruction in "Moonrise" (e.g., that the moon is Jesus, that the rising of the moon is the Resurrection, and the dark Welsh mountain is sin). The poem offers no warrant for such analogies, nor does the octane of "The Windhover," which records a comparable delight-giving perception. It is the sestet of "The Windhover" that has prompted religious interpretation. But there is nothing theological in a ploughshare made to shine by the plodding of effortful labor, nor does the poet offer any explicit religious tableau or liturgical language or dogmatic interpretation to accompany the embers that involuntarily fall, hurt themselves as they break open, and reveal by the accident of their fall the fire still living within their "blue-bleak" shell. (24) The shocking word "gash," in the context of embers, imposes a frightening metaphor of involuntary extinction--a falling, a self-wounding, a death with a gush of blood from the wound. Hopkins's aesthetic choice--to refuse explicit conversion of the natural to the supernatural--means that he wants us to meet him in "The Windhover," as in "Moonrise," on the ground of the natural phenomenon, whether bird or ember.

I return to the crux of "Buckle!" with which I began. Once the vivid circle of inscaping is done, there comes the famous consequent: "and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!" (PW, p. 144). The fusing of bird and self--two different species--has been accomplished by the intervening process that Shelley describes in A Defense of Poetry: "The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own" (italics mine). (25) Hopkins cannot "fuse" with a beak or a wing: he has to rise from the particular to the plane of the general, identifying himself with the beautiful as it exists in brute beauty, valor, act, plume, and pride. Hopkins has "received" the bird's beauty--abstracted into the list of its essences--into his own being insofar as they share common essences. He has thereby created not a visual reminiscence but a symbol. Bird-being, nominalized, enters not only the human intellect (via the abstract concept of "brute [animal] beauty") but also the human will (via the abstractions of intent in concepts of "valour," "act," and "pride"). These latter virtues are usually predicated of human beings. The bird's "beauty" is only slightly distanced from the human by the adjective "brute," and the noun "plume" might well arise as an accoutrement of a human chevalier; but both nouns unequivocally confirm the fact that avian qualities remain in the inscaping symbol.

Hopkins's inscapes are alive and dangerously progressive, not immobile. We can observe in "Pied Beauty" the incremental creeping of the concept "dappled" from its innocent first appearance in "skies," and "trout" and "cows" to the equivocal "Whatever is fickle"--which brings "dappled" perilously near the moral world (PW, p. 144). "Fickle" is always a pejorative, and even though Hopkins instantly retreats from the moral dimension by the alliterating next adjective--"freckled"--"fickle" has come to brood and sit. Likewise, in "The Windhover," as the bird becomes almost human in valor and pride, emotional intensity breeds within Hopkins the entirely abstract, entirely invisible, and entirely metaphorical fire that breaks forth in the poet's own self from the solar fusion of bird-madesymbol and person. (The first of Stevens's three essential qualities of poetry is "It must be abstract": a poem cannot be a mere transcription, no matter how faithful, of perceptual reality.)

Hopkins's enormous consequent, with its "and" and its "then" and its apparently infinite "billion," requires us to account for the second modifier of the windhover's fire: "more dangerous." "Dangerous" has been glossed by critics chiefly in the light of "To What Serves Mortal Beauty?," where the sexual beauty of the human body is "dangerous--does set / Dancing blood." Yet a far more persuasive case for the meaning of "dangerous" in "The Windhover" has been made by Michael Moore, who argues that Hopkins, in the case of "The Windhover," was using the word "dangerous" in the sense in which Newman continually employed it. (26) Moore's many quotations of "dangerous" from Newman are all relevant, and he grounds the danger in Newman's asserting, "It is indeed a great question whether Atheism is not as philosophically consistent with the phenomena of the physical world, taken by themselves, as the doctrine of a creative and governing Power" (p. 89). This question cannot have been absent from Hopkins's mind, and Newman's persistent concentration on the intellectual danger of materialism would have disturbed Hopkins's instinctive "materialism" in his pursuit of individual haecceitas. Although after his fine-grained description of the bluebell, he adds, "I know the beauty of Our Lord by it," in time that faith became, it seems, more strained. Because Hopkins (almost seven years after writing "The Windhover") added to the title of Bridges's copy of the poem a dedication, "to Christ our Lord," (27) the dedication, in conjunction with the idea of infinity suggested by "billion," has persuaded some readers that the windhover must be Christ; this identification of course presents difficulty with the word "dangerous" and cannot be maintained without considerable strain. Moore's evidence of "dangerous" meaning to Newman "intellectually dangerous to the religious view" exempts "Christ" from being "more dangerous" after the appearance of "Buckle."

Why, then, does Hopkins write "The Windhover" as a secular poem about the consequences in mind and heart of successful inscaping? At times, as we know, he could find no way to draw a "Christian" sestet out of the octave with which he had begun his poem: see "To His Watch" (PW, p. 186), which Hopkins abandons as its sestet plunges toward doomsday. Or see the four unsuccessful attempts at a continuation of "On the Portrait of Two Beautiful Young People" (PW, pp. 191-193), concluding with a last unsuccessful try at life in a "Booth at Fairlop Fair," as the poet, allowed only one attempt ("our shy") to hit a target, fails:
   Ah, life, what's like it?--Booth at Fairlop Fair;
   Men/boys brought in to have each our shy there, one
   Shot, mark or miss, no more. I miss; and 'There!--
   Another time I' ... Time' says Death 'is done.'" (PW, p. 193)


When Hopkins dares to carry on such attempts to the end, he writes, in tragic mode, "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves" and, in cynical mode, "The shepherd's brow," in which there is no prospect, for man as he is, of salvation or redemption or even an earnest hope:
   He! Hand to mouth he lives, and voids with shame;
   And, blazoned in however bold the name,
   Man Jack the man is, just; his mate a hussy.
   And I that die these deaths, that feed this flame,
   That ... in smooth spoons spy life's masque mirrored: tame
   My tempests there, my fire and fever fussy. (PW, p. 201)


Dismissing his own inner fire as "fussy," and incapable of lamenting its loss, the poet here repudiates even the tragedy of the embers sending forth, "gashing," their final flare of fire. No longer can Hopkins relish without second thought the beauty of "Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls"; instead he watches "blue-bleak embers." Soon the "world's wildfire" will leave only "ash," as foretold in "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire"--but in "The Windhover" there is no appending of a resurrective "beacon." And in Hopkins's repudiation of his own "vital fire"--"my fire and fever"--as "fussy," we see a self-trivializing judgment.

But this is not the way "The Windhover" ends. Although it has not reached the despair of "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves" or the hopelessness of "The shepherd's brow," it can be seen as a way station on that path. Divided at conclusion between the embers' brokenness and their revelation of persistent fire, "The Windhover" is unable to represent a Christian transmutation of that fire into "immortal diamond." Nonetheless, because of the half triumph of vital fire, the poem demands that its last line end with the royal "gash gold-vermilion" rather than with "fall, gall themselves." Although the poet, like the comet of Floris in Italy, feels his gradually increasing distance from the central sun, he directs his last gaze toward the windhover and sighs his farewell, "Ah my dear," to his plumed knight-bird in anticipation of the dying pain of his embers. The last luminosity of lifeblood, as it closes the sonnet, represents Hopkins's love for the alchemical touchstone by which an awakened sense perception becomes billion-times-lovelier symbolic gold. (28)

Notes

(1) A few have thought "Buckle!" to be an imperative addressed to the whole series of nouns, urging them to link themselves together, but this theory has not been widely adopted.

(2) Michael Putnam of Brown University has kindly furnished me with an even more striking example of prepositioning in which Horace uses four prepositioned direct objects. Carmina 1.32.9-10: "Liberum et Musas Veneremque et illi/ semper haerentem puerum canebat." Literally: "(of) Liber [Bacchus] and the Muses and Venus and the boy [Cupid] always clinging to her he [Alcaeus] was singing." In Loeb (Odes, 80), translated into idiomatic English, it reads (speaking of Alcaeus), that he was "wont to sing of Bacchus, the Muses, Venus, and the boy that ever clings to her."

(3) MacKenzie (PW, p. 223) says of "The Vision of the Mermaids" that it displays "a heavy use of single premodifying adjectives": see, e.g., 1. 13: "Fair beds they seem'd of water-lily flakes," or 1. 37: "[the Mermaids] those Cyclads made that thicken'd on my sight" (PW, p. 12). "Cyclad" is glossed by MacKenzie (PW, p. 223) as "an isle of roses."

(4) There is a yet more egregious Hopkinsian example of prepositioned direct objects in "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo," 11. 29-31: instead of saying to the young, "Resign ... your ways and airs and looks ... and ... deliver them ... back to God," Hopkins takes his eighteen direct objects and names them before advising the young to resign them: "Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maidengear, gallantry and gaiety and grace, / Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace--/ Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them" (PW, p. 170), and so on.

(5) Hopkins is using the word "brute" in its philosophical sense. See OED, s.v. "brute, adj.," Al: "Of animals: wanting in reason or understanding; chiefly in phrases brute beasts, the brute creation, = the 'lower animals.'" In Hopkins's line, "brute" is not pejorative but merely distinguishes animals, which do not possess reason, from humans, who do. It is important for Hopkins in this poem (since he believes people are made in the image and likeness of God) to distinguish human beauty from the beauty of birds or bluebells. Nothing "brutish" or "brutal" is intended by the poet in discriminating levels of creatures.

(6) See (under "caught," PW, p. 380) MacKenzie's relevant quotation from Aquinas: "A thing is known inasmuch as it has come home to the knower' (Phil.Texts ed Gilbey, No. 1117)."

(7) Many poets have reported such moments in which sense perception provokes an inner change: Wordsworth "becomes a living soul," Keats is "already with" the nightingale, Whitman "effuses" himself ("Sparkles from the Wheel") and becomes the scene itself in a different register. Wallace Stevens, speaking of the lyric, states, "The subjects of one's poems are the symbols of one's self or of one of one's selves." Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 904.

(8) This process, when Hopkins places it at a Christological level, becomes "That is Christ being me and me being Christ" (SD, p. 154); it symbolizes posthumous human salvation in "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire": "I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am" (PW, p. 198).

(9) Hopkins's phrase; he criticizes the young Jesuit Scholastics "because they do not see that there is an intellectual imagination.... The soul can then be instressed in the species or scape of any bodily action ... and so towards the species or scape of any object, as of sight, sound, taste, smell" (SD, p. 136). The actions of the windhover abstracted through the intellectual imagination incline the soul "towards" the bird's "scape," or design, enabling the poet's fusion with the bird-as-inscaped.

(10) It is unsettling to see Hopkins, in one of his sermons, calling on the identical epithet-- "world-wielding"--to characterize Lucifer: the human "slave of sin" is "carried with the motion of the flesh and of the world and of the Worldwielder" (SD, p. 157).

(11) Cf. Shakespeare's use in Sonnet 90 of the same phonetic figure of echo to represent identity: "So shall I taste / At first the very worst of fortune's might."

(12) Letter to Richard Watson Dixon, 29 October-2 November 1881, Corres., 1: p. 493.

(13) They attempt a contextualized Christian reading not only by bringing to bear Hopkins's life and writings (including his sermons, which are, in their generic aim and audience, far from poetry, however much they may include sentiments resembling those in the lyrics) but also by instancing selectively chosen biblical and religious texts to envelop the poem in a theological aura. In such interpretations the bird is Christ; the "chevalier" is Christ; the French-derived words arise from Jeanne d'Arc, the poem's female analogue to Christ; or (conversely, with a different set of biblical texts) the predatory bird is Lucifer, son of the morning, seeking whom he may devour. Critics can argue--with respect to almost any Hopkins poem--that some religious discourse illuminates the theme of the work. And quite aside from the resources of religious diction, nonreligious meanings cited for contextualization stray far. There are so many connotations for the word "buckle" in the OED that almost any one of the several meanings can be (and has been) adduced, almost universally defended by a supposed "ambiguity" in it or in its context. Hopkins was distressed when his (few) readers complained of the inscrutability of a poem; he protests that he genuinely intended coherence, that the poem should "explode" as its significance bursts on the reader.

(14) MacKenzie offers his opinion that as used in its first meaning ("Buckle together, link, ... buckle on, as pieces of armour"), "Buckle! is "either noun used for verb or the absolute use of the transitive" (PW, p. 382). "Absolute use" means, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (2014), a normally transitive verb used intransitively, without a direct object, e.g., "Have you eaten?" (The example in an earlier edition was "Guns kill.") This reading of the grammar means that all the nouns of 1. 7 buckle (themselves to each other). MacKenzie does not perceive the possibility of the Latinate construction for which I am arguing here, in which the list of nouns would be the compound prepositioned direct object of the self-addressed transitive imperative "Buckle!"

(15) The one "intrusion" (as it might at first seem) into this motion-patterning by nouns is the utterance, "High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing." "Rung" appears to be a genuine past-tense indicative, but because Hopkins frames that view as an interpolated exclamation within the continuing past tense of "I caught," the import of "rung" is not that of an independent indicative verb (as in "He rung upon the rein as I watched")--rather, it becomes a subsidiary verb in the exclamatory mood: "As 1 watched, how he rung upon the rein!"

(16) It is not only the verbals in "-ing" that persuade us that the bird is in motion: those nominalized motions are enacted in the unpredictable contour of Hopkins's rhythms, sometimes pacing hurriedly, sometimes (as in the spondees of "[he] rebuffed the big wind") almost stopping. Even with Hopkins's manuscript note stating that the poem is written in "falling paeonic rhythm" (ONE two three four, ONE two three four), no consistent regularity--given the indications of "sprung and outriding" added in the note--can be felt by the reader. (Enough has been said about Hopkins's rhythms in the poem that I will not comment further here; I would rather note elements of structure and diction that seem to me as yet insufficiently noticed or wrongly interpreted.)

(17) I link "gash" to "gush" (it may not be everyone's response) by way of the "gush after gush" of scarlet blood pouring from a knife wound in the flesh of Dickinson's lark:
   Split the Lark--and you'll find the Music--
   Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled--
   Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
   Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

   Loose the Flood--you shall find it patent--
   Gush after Gush, reserved for you--
   Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
   Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?


(18) The evolution of the verbs can be seen in drafts (PW, pp. 499, 199-200):

(a) "The scar that galls the limb, that dints the shield";

(b) "And those fell strokes that once scarred flesh, scored shield";

(c) "And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield."

Whereas MacKenzie uses the version he names "c" as copy text, Catherine Phillips argues in her Oxford Authors edition for manuscript evidence supporting "b" as the poet's final version. I find "c" the better poem (perhaps because it is the version I first knew); other editors must decide between the editors' views. Phillips-- perhaps in deference to the long-in-print "c"--reproduces in her notes the entire version published by MacKenzie. Hopkins, Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), p. 387.

(19) Compare, from "The Wreck," "Ah, touched in your bower of bone, / Are you! turned, for an exquisite smart, / Have you! make words break from me here all alone, / Do you!--mother of being in me, heart" (PW p. 123). Inscaping has always an element of piercing pathos, deriving from its mirroring of the speaker's selfhood. See Hopkins's description in his 1870 journal of the "one touch, something striking sideways and unlooked for, which ... undoes resistance and pierces" (Diaries, p. 483). On the other hand, that effect occurs only if there is something inside the recipient already, so to speak, "waiting" for the stroke: our "strong emotion" comes from "a force which was gathered before it was discharged [by the external impact]" (Diaries, p. 483).

(20) Commentators' candidates for the sestet-addressee are several: see PW, p. 383. They include Christ (favored by MacKenzie), the poet, the falcon in action, the poet's "reanimated heart," and St. Ignatius Loyola.

(21) To those who think that "thee," the pronoun used in addressing God, means that Hopkins's "chevalier" is divine, it is sufficient to mention that Hopkins uses "thee" to address Felix Randal, the town of Oxford ("Thou hast a base and brackish skirt"), etc.

(22) The closest parallel to the "billion" of "The Windhover" occurs in the "millions" found in the early speech "I am like a slip of comet," originally published in the fourth edition of the poems as a free-standing poem but subsequently discovered by MacKenzie (PW p. xlv) to be a part of the incomplete drama Floris in Italy, in which the word "millions" refers to the sun's rays. These parallel the "billion" enhancements of beauty when the bird and the self mirror each other, bringing the natural symbol-- heretofore only potential--into radiant flame. When the comet reaches the proximity of the sun, she comes "To fields of light":
   But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes
   And spins her skirts out, while her central star
   Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes
   To fields of light; millions of travelling rays
   Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun[.] (PW, p. 40)


When the comet, pulled by her "tether," falls away from the sun, she "goes out into the cavernous dark" (PW P^ 40).

Compare, for another variant on "million," Hopkins's words from a sermon characterizing the plentitude of the natural world: "Search the whole world and you will find it a million-million fold contrivance of providence planned for our use and patterned for our admiration" (SD, p. 90). Hopkins's use of "billion" in lieu of "million" (which would equally rhyme with "vermilion" and would also denote a quality unaccountably large) is due to his need for an alliterating "b," linking "billion" to "buckle" and "breaks."

(23) Yeats later turned to comparable prosody symbolizing perfection: "Among School Children" has eight stanzas, each of eight lines, and "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" has four continuous four-line rhyme units, each line having four beats-- fourness cubed, one could say. In both Hopkins and Yeats, one does not, one cannot, perceive the prosody as symbolic until one arrives at the last line, where the charm is wound up and its import thereby made visible.

(24) Yes, there are in the sestet contexts of moral seriousness: putting one's hand to the plough may recall Luke 9: 62 ("And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God"), but Jesus's reproach is hardly a psychological match for the earnest ordinary labor of "sheer plod"; and the bitter "gall," although it could come from Psalm 69: 21 ("They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink") or its reprise in Matthew 27: 34 ("They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall"), is also one of Hopkins's secular symbols for himself, allied--in "No worst, there is none"--with the indubitably vernacular "heartburn": "I am gall, I am heartburn" (PW, pp. 182, 181).

(25) In The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter Peck, vol. 7 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930), p. 117.

(26) Michael D. Moore, "Dangerous Beauty: Hopkins and Newman," in Gerard Uanley Hopkins (1844-1889): New Essays on His Life, Writing, and Place in English Literature, ed. Michael E. Allsopp and Michael W. Sundermeier (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1989), pp. 85-112.

(27) It has been alleged that every poem by Hopkins with "To" in the title is addressed to the person bearing the name that follows "To" and that therefore "The Windhover" addresses "Christ Our Lord." But the poem Ad Rev. Patrem Fratrem Thomam Burke O.P. (PW, p. 141) is not addressed to Fr. Burke but speaks about him in the third person. And the dedication of "The Windhover" to Christ is not unusual. Since Jesuits are accustomed to dedicate any work "to the greater glory of God" ("Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam," abbreviated as AMDG), as Hopkins did in the autograph of "Ad Matrem Virginem" (see MacKenzie's note, PW, p. 305), it is not surprising to see Hopkins affixing such a dedication to the poem he regarded--at least at the time of his writing it--as the best he ever wrote.

(28) The OED, among its multiple definitions of "vermilion," includes "the colour of arterial blood" (therefore the gash/gush of Hopkins's embers). In common, the usual definitions ascribe to "vermilion" a sparkling brightness, establishing the link to "gold" in both alchemy and royal accoutrements; it is the last relic of the dauphin's nobility, gilding even the scarlet fire of the broken embers. The end-of-day combination of perfect gold and blood-red had awakened early in Hopkins's adolescent "A Vision of the Mermaids" (1862), in which Nereids, rising through water to the western sunset, "Thro' crimson-golden floods pass swallow'd into fire" (PW, p. 13). Certain phenomena retained for Hopkins lifelong symbolic value.
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Title Annotation:Christian symbolism in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem
Author:Vendler, Helen
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2018
Words:7964
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