As you have probably already gathered, Hopkins really, really liked making up words. He was also fond of taking traditional poetic forms, like the Petrarchan sonnet (which had been around for centuries by the time Hopkins was writing), and then turning it into something totally new and revolutionary. So hold onto your hats, Shmoopers, because the form of this poem is just a bit wacky.
So, what's a Petrarchan sonnet? We're so very glad you asked. A sonnet is a 14-line poem with a set rhyme scheme and a set meter. A Petrarchan sonnet is a particular type of sonnet named for the Italian poet Petrarch, who invented the form to write lovey-dovey poems to someone named Laura.
You might be more familiar with the style of sonnet that Shakespeare wrote, which is called the English, or the Shakespearean, sonnet. Sonnets are usually associated with love and romance—both Petrarch and then Shakespeare wrote sonnets as love poems. So by writing a Petrarchan sonnet about a bird—even a really cool bird like the windhover—Hopkins is already breaking with tradition a bit, since it's not like he's asking the bird to prom or anything.
In a Petrarchan sonnet, the 14 lines are broken up into two groups: the first eight, called the octet, and the last six, called the sestet. In traditional Petrarchan sonnets, the octet has a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA—hey, that's the rhyme scheme of the octet of "The Windhover." So far, so good. The rhyme scheme of the "sestet" in a Petrarchan sonnet can vary, but in "The Windhover," Hopkins chose the pattern CDC DCD. Just take a look at the end words, and you'll see what we mean:
A: the thing!
The rhyme scheme only looks traditional, though. Hopkins messes around with it starting with the octet. The B rhymes ("riding," "striding," "gliding", "hiding") also almost rhyme with the A rhymes—they all end in "-ing." That's unusual already—all those "-ing" forms might help add to the sense that the bird is in the air right now, but it also helps make all the lines of the octet kind of collapse into each other. It's hard to tell, without looking or listening closely, which are the A rhymes and which are the B rhymes.
And not only do the A and B rhymes sound similar, Hopkins actually allows the word "king-dom" to go across two lines (lines 2-3). Yes, this allows "king-" to rhyme with "wing" (line 4), but Hopkins was clever enough with words that he could have come up with another way of making the lines rhyme. Why do you think he did this? (Shmoop on over to the "Symbols" section for our take.)
That just about covers the rhyme scheme of the sonnet, but what about the meter, or the rhythm? If you thought things were getting wacky with the rhyme, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Hopkins wanted to make the rhythm of poetry more like the natural rhythm of spoken language. He didn't think it was natural to have the stressed and unstressed syllables of a poem be perfectly evenly spaced. (What? Do you speak in perfect iambic pentameter all the time? We didn't think so.) So Hopkins invented a new type of meter that he called sprung rhythm, which requires an equal number of stressed syllables per line, but the number of unstressed syllables can vary (and therefore so can the line length).
Check it out—if we highlight the syllables that you'd naturally stress in the first two lines, you'll see what we mean:
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
As you can see, there are five stressed syllables on each line. The first line is actually in iambic pentameter, which is what you'd expect from a normal, traditional Petrarchan sonnet. But that first line throws our expectations for a loop with the word "king- / dom," which gets broken up across the first two lines. Then, the second line breaks into Hopkins's sprung rhythm: even though that second line is way longer than the first, it still only has five stressed syllables, so it fits the more natural-sounding meter that Hopkins was going for.
So that's Hopkins for you: he takes traditional forms and then reinvents them. Kind of like how he takes something that we all take for granted—like a bird in flight—and describes it using new and unexpected language that makes us re-think all of our perceptions. The goal here is to pack meaning into every nook and cranny in the poem, including the meter.