The repeated M sounds in the first line of the poem ("I caught this morning morning's minion…") make a kind of humming noise that gets us thinking of the hum of the wind under the windhover's wings. Then, the repeated D in the next line sounds like the abrupt, staccato beat of the bird's wings as he skillfully repositions himself on the wind, like a surfer.
Almost every line has alliteration of some kind ("rung upon the rein;" "wimpling wing"), and the end rhymes all sound similar, too—they all end in -ing. The sameness of the sounds imitates the bird's motionlessness in the air, as he hovers and harnesses the wind. The alliteration and rhymes sound like the whooshing of the wind under the bird's wings.
You hardly have to move your mouth at all as you read the poem—you can murmur it quietly, while admiring the absolute control of the bird over the air and the poet over the words.
"The Windhover" is about a bird that can—you guessed it—hover on the wind. In fact, windhover is just a common name for a kind of falcon called the kestrel, but it gets called windhover because that crazy ability to ride the wind like a surfer rides the waves is one of its most distinctive characteristics. In fact, the bird's skill as a surfer of the wind is what inspires the poet to write this sonnet in the first place.
If you think about it, the ability to hover on the wind—to stay still in midair—is actually pretty awesome. And maybe it's just this awesomeness that Hopkins is seeking to highlight: the windhover can stay still and strong, even when all the forces of nature—gravity, winds—are working against it.
And then there's the matter of the dedication that commonly appears just below the title and before the start of the poem. It's dedicated "To Christ Our Lord." Hopkins wasn't just a hardcore bird enthusiast, he was also a pretty hardcore Jesuit priest.
Unfortunately, he also had a hard time reconciling his desire to be a poet with his desire to dedicate his life to religion. Eventually, he found a way to make his poetry mesh better with his religion (see "In a Nutshell" for more on that). But because he dedicates this poem to "Christ our Lord," readers are often tempted to look for religious imagery and symbols in the poem, so be sure to check out "Symbols" to learn more.
"The Windhover" takes place outdoors in the early morning. The speaker, we have to assume, is on the ground, but his attention is entirely focused on the air above him: a windhover (a kind of falcon) is hovering in the air. The wind whooshes around, but the bird manages to harness it, riding it like a jockey rides a racehorse. Even though the bird is tiny compared to the power of the wind, he's able to control it and to master it.
We all see birds in flight almost every day—they're so common that we hardly notice them, unless we're avid birdwatchers. But part of Hopkins's project with poetry was to make his readers look at common, everyday objects in a new way and to notice every detail. That's why he doesn't describe his surroundings in more detail: he wants us to focus on the bird and really absorb everything there is to see about the bird.
The speaker of this poem never comes right out and introduces himself, so we have to dig a bit to figure out what makes him tick. We know that he's a morning person—he's apparently the only other living thing outdoors to witness the awesomeness of the windhover's flight. He also has a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature.
Our nature-loving morning person also has quite a way with words. He manages to come up fresh and exciting ways of describing something that we've all seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times: a bird flying in the sky. Somehow, the way the speaker describes it, it's as though we're looking at this bird with fresh eyes, for the very first time.
This is a short poem, but it's a steep climb: Hopkins uses unfamiliar words, mixes up sentence structure, and uses familiar words in totally unexpected and unfamiliar ways. He even makes up words entirely. It's easy to get winded as you make your way through the metaphors and allusions of this poem, but take a quick breather with Shmoop—you'll find that the view from the top is well worth the difficulty.
Hopkins used his poems to demonstrate his own philosophy about the world. He believed that everything in the universe had unique individual characteristics that set every object or person apart from every other object that exists or has ever existed. He called these unique qualities the inscape.
Hopkins was also a devoutly religious man. He thought that writing poetry that focused on expressing the inscape of seemingly ordinary, commonplace things—like a bird in flight—would help readers get closer to God. How would you describe the inscape of your coffee mug? Your pencil? Your goldfish?
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.
The speaker makes a lot of the fact that he catches sight of the windhover in the morning. In case you're not a morning person, let us tell you something about it: the early morning light gives everything a kind of glow as the sun is coming up. Most of the world is still quiet, so if you're out early enough, you might catch sight of something special—like the windhover—and you'll have it all to yourself.
Right from the beginning, the windhover reminds the speaker of something royal. It seems so regal and so proud. The speaker seems to think that the bird is a kind of king of beasts. But the windhover isn't royal because he's bigger or more dangerous than other animals (like, say, The Lion King), but because of his amazing skill at harnessing the wind and riding the air. Royalty based on merit instead of on inheritance… could Hopkins have been trying to make a political point?
Okay, we all know that Hopkins was a very devout Jesuit priest. So devout, in fact, that he stopped writing poetry for a long time (even burning his early poems) because he thought that priests shouldn't write poetry. Later, he decided that writing poetry was a way of bringing himself closer to God—he would use poetry to describe the individual, unique characteristics of different objects (like the windhover) that made them absolutely one-of-a-kind.
Part of Hopkins's poetic project was to show how even things that we see every single day, like a bird flying, could be totally, mind-blowingly amazing if looked at in the right way—like, say, by using foreign words, or unfamiliar words, or completely made-up words, to describe them, with a healthy dose of sprung rhythm and alliteration to boot.
This is a poem about a bird in flight. 'Nuff said.