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  • Catching Fire: “The Windhover”
  • Helen Vendler (bio)

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom  of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn drawn Falcon, in his riding  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and stridingHigh there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wingIn his ecstasy! 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. My heart in hidingStirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh air, pride, plume here  Buckle! and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billionTimes told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillionShine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

(PW, p. 144)

Because “The Windhover” has for a long time seemed to me misrepresented by its commentators, I take this occasion to propose a new reading, one that stems from redescribing Hopkins’s grammar in the sestet. (I will present my argument in brief, then retrace evidence for it in the poem as a whole.) The word “Buckle!”—that famous crux—creates the problem of interpretation because it determines consequences for the rest of the poem. Hopkins’s remarkable series of nouns opening the sestet—“Brute beauty,” “valour,” “act,” “air,” “pride,” “plume”—has been read almost always as the compound subjectof the verb “Buckle!” (apparently on the grounds that nouns precede their predicates). “Buckle,” then, becomes a descriptive verb in the present indicative, to which all six nouns must somehow be attached as subject: they all “buckle.”1

This reading, I believe, originates from a fundamental mistaking of Hopkins’s grammar. The six-noun series is not the subjectbut rather the direct objectof “Buckle,” and the verb is an injunction uttered by the poet to himself: “Buckle [to yourself] brute beauty,” and so on. The entire plural direct object here precedesits verb. Exactly the same template—the prepositioned direct object followed by a second-person command to the self—appears more simply [End Page 111] in the opening line of another sonnet: “My own heart let me more have pity on,” that is, “Let me more have pity on my own heart.” (The same sonnet immediately adds a prepositioned indirectobject in “Let / Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,” where normal syntax would require “kind to my sad self.”) The prepositioning of a direct object, unusual in English, is common in Latin: Horace provides a double direct object of prepositioned contrastive nouns in Epistlesxi, 27: “Coelum, non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt”: “Those who run across the sea change the sky above, but not their soul.”2Hopkins likes the compression and momentary semantic instability of such a Latin template carried over into English and has a perhaps unfounded confidence in his reader’s capacity to recognize that a set of nouns—beauty, valour, act, air, pride, plume—can be the compound direct objectof the verb “Buckle.”3The abstract nouns of the list belong to such different terrestrial and celestial categories that a modern reader may not easily group them as a compound “word,” as Hopkins does.4In conjoining the qualities of the windhover so intimately in a single line, through a group of its abstracted essences, Hopkins “inscapes” the bird as the sum of these abstractions. He sets us a riddle: what living thing exhibits all these qualities at once? The windhover is a creature most at home in the air; it possesses plumes; it is beautiful in the manner in which brutes—nonhuman animals5—can be characterized as having beauty; it exhibits valouras it rebuffs the big wind; and as a dauphin it warrants royal pride. Hopkins’s past-tense octave had offered only a temporal succession of visual and kinetic descriptions: without such preceding narrative episodes, the rush and sweep of the summary inscaping list would be nonreferential, unintelligible. Conversely, if Hopkins had given us the bird only narratively, action by action, observation by observation, the...


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