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Poèmes et poètes

Is Hopkins’ “The Windhover” about Christ? A Negative Response, with a Whimsical Postscript

Le poème de Hopkins « The Windhover » évoque-t-il le Christ ? Une réponse négative, avec un post-scriptum capricieux
Joseph J. Feeney
p. 94-99

Résumé

On pense souvent que le célèbre sonnet de Hopkins « The Windhover » (1877), avec sa dédicace « Au Christ notre Seigneur », évoque autant le Christ que le faucon. Mais ce n’est qu’en 1884 que fut ajoutée la dédicace et le texte ne mentionne jamais le Christ. En outre, le poème peut parfaitement être compris comme une description du vol de l’oiseau comme un ravissement – d’abord sans heurts puis luttant contre le vent. Le spectateur admire l’oiseau et le trouve particulièrement glorieux dans sa lutte, le comparant à une charrue qui brille d’un vif éclat alors aux prises avec la terre et à de gris charbons ardents qui rougeoient quand ils se brisent en tombant dans l’âtre. Cette métaphore faite de trois éléments dans le sonnet célèbre donc la gloire de la lutte douloureuse et du triomphe sur l’adversité. Certains lecteurs ajoutent un quatrième élément à la métaphore – le Christ, mais le poème fait pleinement sens sans cet ajout, ce qui montre que le poème n’évoque finalement pas le Christ. Une dernière surprise : ce poème très grave est léger et enjoué dans l’incongruité comique des trois (ou quatre) éléments de la métaphore.

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Texte intégral

  • 1  David Patrick Stearns, “Disharmony in a string quartet,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 7, 20 (...)
  • 2  For various critical perspectives, see, e.g., Peter Milward, S.J., A Commentary on the Sonnets of (...)

1A music critic once wrote, “The string-quartet medium is to music what sonnets are to literature: It represents the finest efforts of the greatest composers.”1 Here I take a fresh look at one of the world’s greatest sonnets by one of the world’s greatest sonneteers, and argue, against many critics,2 that Hopkins’ “The Windhover” is not about Christ. In making this point, I offer two clarifications, then two arguments.

I

  • 3 Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “about”.

2My first clarification is a definition of terms, my second, an explanation of methodology. Of the terms, only the word “about” needs defining, and by it I mean, in dictionary language,3 “concerning” or “appertaining to.” With regard to a poem, I understand “about” to mean “part of the content of.” With regard to “The Windhover,” then, I argue this proposition: Christ is not part of the content of the poem.

  • 4  Justus George Lawler, Hopkins Re-Constructed: Life, Poetry, and the Tradition, New York: Continuum (...)

3My methodology—my “hermeneutic” as it were—is a more complicated issue. I stand in the tradition of the New Critics of the 1920s-1950s, and I limit my reading to what a text “says,” i.e., what the words expressly communicate. Thus, I “read” a poem rather than “interpret” it. I avoid words like “implies,” “may allude to,” “might refer to”: such words point to possible readings but go well beyond the text itself, and on grounds external to the poem, make the poem over-complex and allusive. (In this regard, Justus George Lawler’s Hopkins Re-Constructed,4 however learned, is especially egregious in going beyond the text.) I prefer, rather, to eliminate non-text-based explanations and embroiderings. To invoke a metaphor, I want to be like a scientist who prizes the simplest, most elegant proof of a theorem or of a law of physics. In short, I want solid textual evidence, and prize the simplest, most elegant reading. If I don’t “need” resonances and overtones to find the full meaning of a poem, I don’t invoke them. Such is my methodology, my hermeneutic.

II

  • 5  I take the text from The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman H. MacKenzie (ed.), Oxfor (...)
  • 6 Ibid., 376-77.
  • 7 The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, Claude Colleer Abbott (ed.), London: Oxford (...)
  • 8 Ibid., 85.
  • 9 The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins,N. H. MacKenzie(ed.), op. cit., xxxvi-xxxvii, 377, 380.

4I turn now to my two arguments drawn, first, from historical data, then from the text itself. The historical data deal with the poem’s dedication “to Christ our Lord.”5 This dedication was first added more than six-and-a-half years after the poem was composed, and is not part of the original text. Hopkins wrote “The Windhover” at St. Beuno’s College in North Wales in the spring of 1877—he dated it “May 30 1877”6—and over a year later, on July 16 1878, he referred to it as simply “the Falcon sonnet.”7 Another year later, on June 22 1879, he called the poem “the best thing I ever wrote,”8 but still did not mention “Christ.” The words “to Christ our Lord” were first added over four years after that, when Hopkins checked and revised a copy of the poem made by his friend and fellow-poet Robert Bridges, a revision made some time after mid-December 1883, most likely in 1884—over six-and-a-half years after the poem’s composition.9 Such a late date indicates that the phrase “Christ our Lord” is clearly separated from, hence separable from, the poem itself. In sum, the word “Christ” is, quite simply, not present in the original text nor needed to read it.

5Moreover, the addition of the dedication “to Christ our Lord” can be fully explained by Hopkins’ estimable desire to dedicate his very best work to the Christ he loved. In the years between 1877 and 1884, he had composed a number of fine, new poems. By 1884, the year he wrote the dedication, Hopkins had a broader perspective on his work, could more maturely confirm his 1879 judgment that “The Windhover” (1877) was “the best thing I ever wrote,” and thus could, in new praise of Christ, more explicitly offer his “best” poem to the God-Man he so dearly loved. But the key point remains: the dedication and its reference to Christ were not in the original poem itself.

  • 10  Catherine Phillips(ed.), Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Oxford Authors Series, Oxford: Oxford Universi (...)

6Nor, I further argue, is the person of Christ present in the poem. Using the texts of both Norman MacKenzie and Catherine Phillips,10 I argue that the poem makes full and complete sense without any reference to, or invocation of, Christ. “The Windhover” is, in short, not “about” Christ, nor does he appear in the poem.

7 “The Windhover,” as I read it, is “about” the wonder of a bird’s natural power of flight and the even greater wonder of its ability to overcome adversity. And since in overcoming adversity the bird must suffer, the poem is also “about” the wonder and mystery of suffering, both active and passive—a wonder later paralleled in the poem, incongruously, by a plough and the embers of a fire.

8A brief summary of my reading goes this way: seeking some prey in the morning, a kestrel hovers in place against a strong wind, then glides off into the wind in a smooth arc to look for his prey. As he does this, an observer—the “I” of the poem—watches and admires him. In flying with such power, assurance, and grace, thinks the observer, the bird must feel an ecstasy, and the observer’s own heart is then “stirred” for the bird’s “achieve” and “mastery.” But suddenly a blast of wind strikes the falcon, and the bird must struggle to maintain control and stay aloft; it simultaneously both collapses in the wind-blast “AND” in that same act regains its control. The kestrel thus triumphs over sudden adversity, and the fiery struggle of the bird in his collapse/re-control makes the observer admire the bird even more, likening him to a fiery knight controlling a raging steed. Reflecting on this unusual comparison of a humble Victorian bird to a grand medieval knight, the admiring watcher even cries out to the bird, “O my chevalier!”

9In the sestet, the observer reflects further on what he has seen, realizing that such a collapse/re-control—such a struggle—such a triumph over obstacles—is not so very unusual. Indeed, it is almost commonplace, for the observer likens the surprised kestrel’s brilliant struggle and triumph over the wind-blast to the way a plough, when pulled through a field, shines brightly after its struggle against the earth has worn away its winter-rust. The observer then considers a new parallel: how the grey embers of a fire, in falling to the hearth, suffer a “gash,” break open, then show a fiery, shining “gold-vermilion” inside each broken ember. The brilliance of the embers even makes the observer cry out to the bird, “ah my dear”—a warm, heartfelt cry to the kestrel who has so stirred his heart.

10The poem thus sets up a three-part, incongruous metaphor—bird: plough : embers—to celebrate the wonder, beauty, and brilliance of collapse/struggle/suffering/re-control, and to express the observer’s admiration of bird, plough, and embers in their triumph over adversity. This, I argue, is what the poem is “about.”


***

11Though not in the text, “Christ our Lord,” I note, could be added as a fourth item of the metaphor: it does make sense, and given the poem’s dedication, becomes (when added in 1883) a natural extension of the metaphor. Through this addition, the poem’s original three-item metaphor—bird: plough: embers—is expanded to a four-item metaphor—bird: plough: embers: Christ. It makes complete sense, but this extension, however fitting, however religious and incarnational, surely goes beyond the original text as Hopkins wrote it. Christ is not “in” the poem, or necessary to its basic three-item metaphor. Thus, I conclude, Hopkins’ poem “The Windhover” is simply not “about” Christ.

  • 11  I develop this point at greater length in my study The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Alder (...)

12In a final postscript, I might note the incongruity of these metaphors. The original three-item metaphor, while consistent, fitting, and original, is incongruous: it brings together such radically disparate things as a bird, a plough, and fire-embers. The four-item metaphor is even more incongruous in linking Christ with bird, plough, and embers. The metaphor’s basic incongruity—whether with three or four items—is so strange, so abnormal, so inharmonious as to be almost comic or playful: it creates, almost by way of counterpoint, a light, lovely, whimsical dimension of a great poem appropriately considered serious, emotional, brilliant, complex, recondite, and packed with meaning.11 Can a falcon be like a plough be like a dying fire? AND perhaps even be like Christ?

13“The Windhover” playful? Whimsical?

14Ah, the master Hopkins is once again at work.

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Notes

1  David Patrick Stearns, “Disharmony in a string quartet,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 7, 2006, D8.

2  For various critical perspectives, see, e.g., Peter Milward, S.J., A Commentary on the Sonnets of G.M. Hopkins, Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1969, 24-28;  Paul L. Mariani, A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970, 111-13;  Norman H. MacKenzie, A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981, 79-80, 84;  Norman White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 282-83;  Paul Mariani, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, New York: Viking, 2008, 177-78.

3 Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “about”.

4  Justus George Lawler, Hopkins Re-Constructed: Life, Poetry, and the Tradition, New York: Continuum, 1998.

5  I take the text from The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman H. MacKenzie (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 144.

6 Ibid., 376-77.

7 The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, Claude Colleer Abbott (ed.), London: Oxford University Press, 1955, 56.

8 Ibid., 85.

9 The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins,N. H. MacKenzie(ed.), op. cit., xxxvi-xxxvii, 377, 380.

10  Catherine Phillips(ed.), Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Oxford Authors Series, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 132.

11  I develop this point at greater length in my study The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008, 94-97.

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Référence papier

Joseph J. Feeney, « Is Hopkins’ “The Windhover” about Christ? A Negative Response, with a Whimsical Postscript », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, 94-99.

Référence électronique

Joseph J. Feeney, « Is Hopkins’ “The Windhover” about Christ? A Negative Response, with a Whimsical Postscript », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, mis en ligne le 19 mai 2009, consulté le 04 décembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/85 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.85

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Auteur

Joseph J. Feeney

(Philadelphia, United States)
Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., is Professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Co-Editor of The Hopkins Quarterly. A Jesuit priest, he recently published The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2008), and (with Joaquin Kuhn of the University of Toronto) he co-edited Hopkins Variations: Standing round a Waterfall (2002)—35 essays by scholars and artists from 13 countries. He has written over 70 articles and 20 book reviews on Hopkins, and given 75 lectures in the United States, England, Ireland, Spain, Italy and Japan. Perhaps most notably, in 1998 he discovered in London an unknown Hopkins poem, the comic “’Consule Jones’” (1875), which was first published in 1999 in the special 5000th issue of TLS: The Times Literary Supplement. His essays and reviews on Hopkins and other writers have appeared in the United States, England, Wales, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Japan. In 2006 he was named a Fellow of the English Association (FEA).

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