Study Guide

The Windhover

The Windhover Summary

The speaker of the poem looks up and sees a windhover (another name for the common kestrel, which is a kind of falcon). Windhovers have the ability to hover in place in the air while they scan the ground for prey. The speaker watches the windhover ride the wind like it's a horse, and then wheel around in an arc like a skater, then hover some more. The beauty and power of the bird totally blow his mind, and he's got the exclamation marks to prove it.

  • Octet

    Lines 1-2

    I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
    dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon […] 

    • The speaker uses the word "caught" here the way we would say, "I caught a movie last night." He just means that he saw something, and he says he saw it this morning.
    • Okay, so what did he see? He saw something that he's calling "morning's minion." A minion is a devoted servant. So morning's minion is just a metaphorical way of describing someone who really likes the morning.
    • The repeated M sound is alliteration—step on over to the "Symbols" section to learn more about that.
    • And speaking of alliteration, all the repeated D sounds make line 2 a mouthful. Trying saying that three times fast.
    • Joking aside, alliteration plays a key role in this poem, so keep your eye out for more repeated sounds like that. We guarantee you'll spot them everywhere. 
    • Now the speaker is describing the thing he saw in another way, using a new metaphor: he says that morning's minion is the "dauphin" (which is the French word for the crown prince, or the dude who is next in line to be king) of the "kingdom of daylight."
    • So whatever it is he's looking at, we know it's morning when this thing comes out. 
    • The poet breaks up the word kingdom across two lines. That's some unusual and extreme enjambment right there. Why might he have done that? We'll answer that in our "Symbols" section, so check it out and then click back.
    • In the final metaphor used to describe the thing the speaker saw this morning, he actually tells us what it was (finally). It was a falcon.
    • But not just any falcon—it's a falcon that's actually "drawn" by the "dawn." Drawn could mean two things here: it could be a like a horse-drawn carriage, meaning that the Falcon is pulled forward by the dawn, or it could mean that the dawn is drawing the falcon like an artist.
    • "Dapple-dawn" is an unusual way of describing the dawn. Dapple means spotted, so perhaps the light of the early morning is slightly broken up by some clouds.
    • Let's sum up: we've got a speaker who loves to alliterate, looking up at a falcon at dawn. Pretty simple, right? But the language is not so simple.

    Lines 2-5

    […] in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! […] 

    • We know that the speaker caught sight of a windhover, or a kind of falcon, in the morning, and that he's compared it to a kind of prince of the dawn. Now he's going to tell us what the windhover is doing: it's riding the air. 
    • Nature Lover's Side Note: Windhovers are able to hover in one place in the air while scanning the ground for prey, kind of like how a swimmer treads water. This is how the windhover got its name. We recommend that you check out the video of a kestrel (another name for the windhover) hovering in the "Best of the Web" section—the imagery described will make much more sense after you've seen this bird in action.
    • Back to the poem. The air the bird is riding is described as "rolling"—maybe like the way we describe the waves of the sea?
    • The speaker says that the air the bird rides is both rolling, but also "level" and "steady." There seems to be a contradiction here. Or maybe he's trying to describe the fact that although the air is rolling, the bird's skill at riding it makes it seem level and steady.
    • The bird is also striding up high in the air. Stride is an odd choice of word for a bird, since a bird can't really stride, or take long steps (unless it's an ostrich or an emu)—they fly, they don't stride. But to be fair, this poem is full of unexpected metaphors. Why might Hopkins describe a bird as striding? For one thing, "striding" implies a lot of control or authority—a person strides across a room when they really know what they're doing.
    • The bird must be enjoying his morning riding or striding in the air, because according to our speaker, it's in ecstasy.
    • Now the bird is being compared to someone riding a horse—he rung upon the rein. Another metaphor for you.
    • Sounds as though the bird is in total control—he is able to rein in the wind using his wimpling wings.
    • Wait. What wings? Wimpling? That's a funky, unfamiliar word that means rippling. So the wings are rippling in the air. Okay, that makes total sense. 
    • And there's a possible pun here—the slightly more familiar definition of wimple is the cloth that nuns wear to cover their hair. So even though the definition of wimpling as rippling makes more sense in the context of the poem, it does seem like Hopkins might have wanted his readers to think about nuns and religion when he chose the word wimpling. Hey, even a subconscious association will do.
    • Check out at how many -ing words there are in these lines: "riding," "rolling," "striding," "wimpling." Plus, each line in the poem so far has ended in "-ing." We use those present participle forms to describe action as it's happening, as in, "Be quiet! The movie is starting!" So all the -ing forms in these lines help add to the impression that the bird is hovering in the air right now.

    Lines 5-7

    […] then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. […]

    • Suddenly, the bird breaks from his almost motionless hovering and swings out and bends in the air.
    • The repetition of the word "off" might help to emphasize the suddenness of the new movement.
    • The arc of the bird's sudden movement is compared to the clean "sweep" of an ice skater's "heel."
    • Then the graceful forward motion of the bird (his "hurl and gliding") suddenly stops again—he beats back the wind ("rebuffed the big wind") and hovers almost motionless again.

    Lines 7-8

    […] My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    • The speaker's "heart" feels deeply moved by the power ("mastery") and achievement of the bird's flight.
    • So then why would he say that his heart is in hiding? Is his heart hiding in his chest (that is, after all, where a heart belongs)? Or is his heart usually hidden from the world, in the sense that he isn't the kind of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve? Is he saying that his heart isn't usually all that easily moved, but the bird's awesome flying manages to move him?
    • We're not sure, which only adds to the ambiguity in play here. What's important though, is that he's having an emotional reaction to the sight of the windhover.
    • That's some bird. No wonder Hopkins pops in an exclamation point at the end.
    • One thing in particular here jumps out at Shmoop: Hopkins uses the verb "achieve" as a noun. Strange, right? What's the effect of this, do you think? 
    • Stay tuned, Shmoopers: Hopkins likes to use verbs as nouns and nouns as verbs and adjectives as nouns and… well, you get the picture.
  • Sestet

    Lines 9-10

    Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! […]

    • Whoa, what? How can we even begin to pick apart this sentence? Let's start by finding the verb. The word "buckle" is the verb of this sentence, and it could mean two things: buckle can mean to bring together (as in, "buckle your seatbelts because this is going to be a crazy ride!"), or it can mean to collapse (as in, "our knees buckled in amazement the first time we read 'The Windhover'"). It's also possible that we're supposed to take the word "buckle" to mean both at the same time: the things the speaker lists come together and then collapse. Which do you think it is?
    • So what is it that buckles? Let's take a look at that list: "brute beauty"—wait. Doesn't it seem weird to describe beauty as brute? Let's see… brute might describe a strong, powerful animal, so it does work in the context of the windhover, which is a strong, powerful bird. 
    • It's possible that the adjective brute is meant to modify "beauty" and "valour" and "act" in this sentence.
    • Valour means honor and courage, and act is another example of how Hopkins uses verbs as nouns or vice versa—here he's using the verb "act" as a noun instead of just saying "action."
    • So, to sum up this complicated and rather unusual sentence: A lot of different characteristics, including "brute beauty," "valour," "act[ion]", "air," "pride," and "plume" are all brought together, and possibly collapsed together, ("buckled") in the flight of this bird. Phew! Hopkins sure knows how to pack in meaning.

    Lines 10-11

    […] And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 

    • The "fire" in line 10 describes the red feathers of the windhover's chest through a metaphor
    • That fire is both lovely and dangerous—maybe dangerous because the windhover is playing with very powerful forces of nature, like the wind?
    • It's so lovely and dangerous that the speaker says it's a "billion times […] lovelier, more dangerous."
    • "Chevalier" is French for knight—this might connect back to the description of the windhover as a dauphin, or the crown prince of France, in line 2.
    • Hopkins is making a clear connection here between this bird and all things glorious, awesome, and grand. This is seriously the best bird he's ever seen. It blows all those pesky pigeons out of the water.

    Lines 12-13

    No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
    Shine, […] 

    • It's no big wonder the bird is so beautiful, says the speaker. (He seems to think that since the bird's flight is an everyday occurrence, people might not take notice or find it to be beautiful, so he lists a couple other things that are everyday occurrences but are also beautiful, if you look at them in a certain way.)
    • The "sheer" "plod[ding]," or the sheer, boring, everyday-ness of a ploughman's work is what makes the plough shine so beautifully with use as it travels down the furrow ("sillion") in the field.
    • Here's another example of how Hopkins mixes up his parts of speech and uses adjectives as verbs and nouns as adjectives: he uses the verb "plod" instead of "plodding."
    • "Sillion" is a word that that Hopkins made up, but it is probably related to the French word "sillon," which means the furrow, or the cut in the earth that the plough makes (and where you'd then plant seeds).

    Lines 13-14

    […] and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

    • Just as the plough might seem totally boring at first glance, the darkened embers, or coals, in a fireplace seem dull and bleak at first. But then, when they fall and break open ("gall themselves"), they burst out with red-gold fire.
    • "Gash" is a noun that usually means a deep cut, but Hopkins is using it as a verb meaning gush in this context. And "vermilion" is a shade of red—almost a blood-red.
    • The idea here is that beauty can be found just about everywhere—even in places you least expect it. So the next time you gaze up at a bird, ponder yourself some Hopkins and see how you feel.