Study Guide

The Windhover Themes

  • Awe and Amazement

    The inspiration for "The Windhover" is the speaker's awe and amazement at the windhover's awesome and amazing skill at hovering on the wind, so you better believe that he's more than a little impressed. One of Hopkins's goals in writing poetry was to inspire his readers with the same kind of awe and amazement that he felt when looking at simple, everyday objects—like a bird in flight. And we'd say this poem succeeds.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. What's so awesome about the windhover, according to the speaker?
    2. Do you think the speaker would feel the same kind of awe at something that was manmade, or is his amazement and admiration limited to things in the natural world? How can you tell?
    3. Do you think that the speaker could feel the same kind of amazement at anything in the natural world? What about something we usually consider totally yucky, like a leech or a maggot?

    Chew on This

    The speaker of "The Windhover" feels a sense of awe at the bird's ability to harness a natural element as powerful and unpredictable as the wind.

    The speaker of "The Windhover" wants to inspire the reader with a sense of amazement at even the most apparently mundane, everyday objects, like a bird in flight, or like a plough, or a bed of dying embers.

  • Appearances

    "The Windhover" is about the speaker's admiration for a beautiful bird, true. But it also touches on some bigger philosophical questions—like how even boring, everyday objects can appear beautiful and amazing if only we know how to look at them in the right way. This poem is partly meant to show us how to open our eyes to see the beauty hidden in everyday things.

    Questions About Appearances

    • The speaker describes the windhover using a series of similes and metaphors. What does he compare the bird to, and why do you think he makes those choices? What do the things he compares the bird to have in common? 
    • In the sestet of the poem (the last 6 lines), the speaker brings up two other common, everyday objects: the plough and embers from a fire. What do these things have in common with the windhover? Why bring them up at all?
    • If you were going to write a poem about a common, everyday object in order to show how it had a kind of hidden beauty, like the windhover, what object would you choose, and why? In what way is this object beautiful?

    Chew on This

    The windhover appears beautiful because of the speaker's ability to see beneath the surface.

    It is actually the surface beauty and power that the speaker admires in the windhover, rather than its hidden qualities.

  • Man and the Natural World

    In "The Windhover," a man goes totally nuts over a bird in flight. Why is it that he's so into birds? Is he really an ornithologist? We're guessing that he's not, since he calls the windhover "daylight's dauphin" and "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" (2), instead of Falco tinnunculus. There's something about seeing this bird in its natural element, hovering on the wind, that the speaker of "The Windhover" finds absolutely awe-inspiring.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What other natural images or objects does the speaker compare the windhover to? What effect does each of those comparisons have on your reading of the poem?
    2. Why does the speaker say that the windhover is both "lovelier" and "more dangerous" in line 11? What is dangerous about it?
    3. The images that the speaker brings up in the final three lines—the "plough" and the dying "embers"—are both man-made instead of natural. Why do you think this is? Why does he not use examples of natural beauty to close the poem?

    Chew on This

    The many metaphors and similes of "The Windhover" all relate to the harnessing of natural power: the windhover itself harnesses the wind, the horseback rider controls the strength of the horse, the skater glides with control over the ice, and the plough cuts into the earth to plant seeds.

    Harnessing natural power, as the windhover does, is both beautiful and potentially hazardous, which is why the speaker hints at the "danger" of the windhover's flight in 11.

  • Strength and Skill

    We can't discuss "The Windhover" without talking about the poet's inspiration for writing: the awe-inspiring strength and skill of the bird itself. This bird, commonly called a windhover because of its ability to hover on the wind, can actually fly in place in the air, even with high winds buffeting it around. (Don't believe us, or having trouble visualizing it? Go check out a video of a kestrel hovering in the air in the "Best of the Web" section.) No wonder Hopkins felt inspired.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. What, according to the speaker, is so difficult about what the windhover is able to do? How do you know?
    2. Besides the windhover's skill at hovering in the air, what other kinds of skill are referenced in the poem? What's the effect of these different types of skill? Are they all equal? Why do you think so?
    3. What is it that the bird has mastered?

    Chew on This

    The poet was clearly showboating as he wrote "The Windhover": his incredible skill at crafting a Petrarchan sonnet with a revolutionary new meter throws his own poetic skill in the reader's face.

    The fact that the speaker hardly identifies himself at all, but focuses entirely on the bird, suggests that the motivation for writing the poem is purely admiration for the strength and skill of the windhover.