Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 433-443
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Counterpoint in "The Windhover"
DENNIS SOBOLEV RECENTLY COMMENTED THAT GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS IS a more marginal figure than in previous generations because current criticism has understood Hopkins to believe "in the immanence of meaning in language." 1 Hillis Miller is a critic frequently cited as an exponent of this position. Claiming that Hopkins transforms his "early experience of the absence of God . . . into what is, in Victorian poetry, an almost unique sense of the immanence of God in nature and in the human soul," Miller argues that Hopkins "integrates all things into one chorus of many voices all singing, in their different ways, the name of Christ. Poetry is the imitation and echo of this chorus." 2 However, in the next section of his essay, Miller proceeds to argue that "Hopkins is ultimately forced to recognize that both man and nature are fallen. This recognition explodes into discordant fragments the harmonious chorus of creation, leaving him once more in suffering and isolation" (p. 324). I suggest that Hopkins' recognition of discord is evident in his earlier poems and that it is fundamental to understanding some of them. In particular, I propose a reading of "The Windhover," which is not singular, but rather represents the struggle for interpretation caused by the gap between the "fallen world" and Hopkins' conception of the truth of God. "The Windhover" does not present immanent meaning but contradiction as two different readings take place simultaneously throughout the poem through a type of counterpoint.
Isobel Armstrong argues that Hopkins struggles to ground language within an economy of meaning. She explores in particular his response to the nun's cry—"What did she mean?"—in "The Wreck of the Deutschland," showing that it raises problems about interpretation. Armstrong contends that "her cry inscapes the wreck, flushing matter with meaning in the logos, giving the unshapeable flux of time-bound sea, a unique shape." 3 The words of the nun, according to Armstrong, "signify Christ." Yet Armstrong argues that the word "kept" in "Wórd, that héard and képt thee and úttered thee óutríght" (l. 240) indicates the "difficulty in holding onto, possessing, what they [words] designate in this poem" (p. 435). Armstrong argues that the problem of the gap between words and things "haunts" not only [End Page 433] this poem but also Hopkins' later poems. I agree with Armstrong that Hopkins is concerned by the gap between language or interpetation and the material world, but I argue that rather than fearing this gap, he explores and exploits it. In "The Wreck of the Deutschland" the cry of the nun is only the cry of one person, and she reads the wreck in a particular way: "Wording it how but by him that present and past, / Heaven and earth are word of, worded by" (ll. 229-230). But others might word the wreck differently, perhaps solely as a disaster without the redemption envisioned by the nun. It is this gap that Hopkins explores as he considers different readings of the world and of death in his later poems. "The Windhover," as I will present it, particularly explores the gap between interpretations.
In June of 1879, Hopkins wrote to Robert Bridges that he thought "The Windhover" was "the best thing" he had ever written. 4 Although much critical attention has been devoted to it subsequently and many critics agree with Hopkins, there are dissenting voices since it is a difficult poem to fit into a schematized understanding of Hopkins. Denis Donoghue in 1955 termed the poem "fundamentally defective." 5 A key problem for interpretation is that Hopkins admires a powerful bird of prey in the octave, and yet in the second tercet he seems to valorize a humble life of suffering. Critics, desiring Hopkins to have some consistency with himself and with Christian doctrine, have struggled with how to understand the admiration for the powerful bird, and the apparent shift in the sestet. Noting the poem's dedication "to Christ our Lord" in a later manuscript, Norman MacKenzie, for...