Study Guide to “The Windhover”

Study Guide to The Windhover

Hopkins called “The Windhover” the “best thing I ever wrote,” and many critics have agreed. It is one of Hopkins’s most famous and most widely anthologized poems. More than 100 analyses of the poem appeared before 1970! The poem’s title comes from an alternate name for the kestrel, a small hawk. The kestrel is known for its method of catching prey: it pauses in the air, appearing to “hover,” and remains relatively stable even in gusting winds. The bird dives suddenly in a controlled swoop when prey is in sight.

Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:

  • Consider the poem’s dedication: “To Christ our Lord.” The contemporary poet Ange Mlinko has claimed that “The Windhover” is “a love poem directed not at a particular person (though the poem is dedicated ‘To Christ our Lord’) but to life itself.” Although the dedication was added after the original date of composition, many readers nevertheless have seen Christological elements in the poem. How much should this subtitle color our reading of the poem? Do you see it as an afterthought or as part of the original underlying design (or what Hopkins would have called “underthought”) of the poem? How does the bird itself relate (or not) to Christ?
  • When the speaker’s heart stirs for “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” what is “the thing”? Is it the bird or the bird’s “act”? Can we separate the two?
  • The poem may at first seem like a peaceful meditation on nature, but in fact it contains a great number of violent words and images. In addition to the chivalric images, which imply battle, the bird’s “act” is predatory and “dangerous,” and “fire breaks from” it. Additionally, the embers in the final three lines are described in anthropomorphic terms that specifically suggest violence as well (i.e. “fall,” “gall,” and “gash”). What is the place of violence in the poem, and how does it contribute to the poem’s overall meaning?
  • In the final three lines, why does Hopkins move away from the kestrel to humbler, inanimate objects? Compare and contrast this movement with the ending of “As kingfishers catch fire,” in which the speaker turns away from animals not to inanimate objects but to humans.

For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology:
alliteration | assonance | consonant-chiming | counterpoint | inscape | sprung rhythm

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