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On the occasion of World Poetry Day 2019, I’d like to celebrate one of my favourite poems, “The Windhover” by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889). A Jesuit priest by profession, Hopkins’ poetry was largely unread during his lifetime and only received critical attention, and subsequent acclaim, after his death. His work is known for its deeply religious overtones: “The Windhover” is sub-titled “To Christ our Lord” and is typical of Hopkins’ tendency to seek God’s presence in the everyday world around us, particularly in aspects of nature. In this poem, he focuses on the majestic flight of the common kestrel, colloquially referred to as a ‘windhover’ for its ability to ‘hover’ in mid-air while hunting. This sonnet’s images are beautifully wrought and its depiction of Christ as a kestrel in flight is deeply affecting. But it is the language of the poem that I love most.

            Hopkins is widely considered “one of the few strikingly successful innovators” of poetic language and his work is particularly noteworthy for the way he infuses it with the patterns of Welsh and Old English sound and rhythm, to create what he termed ‘sprung rhythm’. In “The Windhover”, this rhythm creates the sense of a bird in flight: just like the speaker, we too are encouraged to observe the bird, the smoothness of its ‘riding’ of the thermals before it darts away – “off, off forth on swing” – in search of prey. The windhover is stronger than the wind, which he ‘rebuffs’; he is master of all he surveys.

            Indeed, how quickly our attention is drawn away from the observer to the observed: the human in the scene, to which we humans are always attracted, quickly fades into the background so that it is the object he is viewing which also becomes the focus of our attention. How is this effect achieved? Through the poem’s language, or, more specifically, the deviant manner in which it uses language. ‘Caught’ activates the double meaning of human attempts to capture animals in the wild and to ‘catch sight ‘of’ something. Repetition of sounds occurring at the beginning of words – alliteration – comes at us in waves: repetition of ‘m’, followed by d, followed by r, followed by w, followed by s. It grabs our attention, drawing us in. The rules of grammar are distorted as verbs act like nouns – with “riding” “striding”, and “gliding” taking the form of gerunds – emphasising the kestrel’s possession of his flight. He is not just flying: he is this flight. What is the effect of this linguistic deviation? Just like the observer, the reader’s heart too ‘stirs for a bird’ – “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

            The language of the final six lines – the sonnet’s sestet – is undoubtedly difficult, exercising all of Hopkin’s linguistic mastery. It seems impenetrable, obtuse, inaccessible, alienating: a disappointing end given the exhilarating flight from which the reader has just disembarked. Its impenetrability is partially because of the heavily ellipsed nature of the grammar, with so many linguistic elements absent that it is difficult to recover meaning from what remains. But this impenetrability also results from ambiguities in the meaning of certain words, the most famous of which is the word “Buckle!”. Volumes have been written on what this word could possibly mean, and it is undoubtedly the most important word in the poem, the linchpin upon which its very meaning depends. “Buckle” can be interpreted to mean ‘submit’, ‘prepare for action’, ‘fasten together’ or ‘crumple up’. Its ambiguous grammatical status further complicates matters: for each of its potential meanings, it could be a command (imperative) or a statement (indicative) while also being an exclamatory. So why, then, was such an ambiguous word chosen? Simply in order to make it stand out to us, the reader. The reader’s inability to easily process the meaning of “Buckle” in its context ensures that it captures and maintains attention; effectively it stands out against the background of both its immediate syntactic environment and the sonnet as a whole. Now that you’ve noticed it – because of the weird syntactic company it keeps, its shifting grammatical function, and its graphological position as the first word in an indented line followed by a word wholly written in capital letters – you can do what you want with it! You may never know what Hopkins’ epiphany was, but that doesn’t matter; the ambiguity ensures that each reader will experience their own version. So, Hopkins is asking, what does the image of a majestic bird in flight convey to you? What does it mean to you? Because your experience of the world around you is just as important as his.

            And there lies the beauty of words: they can convey both meaning and ambiguity. Words evoke a deeply personal experience and one we can all gain from, a fitting note on World Poetry Day.

For similar pieces, you may enjoy the entries on the Department of English's “Notes on Literature: For Readers and Writers” blog.

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