... in "The Windhover"

Published on 12 Jul 2021
A kestrel hovering

I went for a walk at the weekend and was excited to see a bird of prey. I'm not a birdwatcher as such, but I've always loved birds. I watched it hover, then drop suddenly. 

'How exciting!' I said to my husband. 'It's not a kestrel. I'm not sure what it is, but at least it's not a kestrel!' I've seen kestrels so many times next to motorways I was about as excited as you'd be if you saw a feral pigeon in London. This, I thought, was something more interesting. We'd been able to see it up close too, and that was amazing. 

When I got home that evening I spent quite a long time searching for images of various birds of prey in order to identify it, but got increasingly confused, as it didn't seem quite like any of the birds I found, but then I found a picture of a bird that looked remarkably similar, only it was a kestrel (in a particular posture, tail feathers splayed), and I muttered to myself 'can't be a kestrel. It was much bigger than a kestrel.'

Eventually I called my husband over and flicked through some of the images. 'That one,' he said, pointing to the picture of the kestrel.

How unfair, I thought, only a kestrel after all! I laughed at myself for my lack of bird identification skills, but was a little cross with myself. I tweeted a picture of the bird, and my father-in-law, who is a huge Gerard Manley Hopkins fan, tweeted back 'Windhover.' 

I know the poem quite well but for some reason had never clicked that it was written about my 'ordinary' kestrel. Reading the poem, I realised that what I had seen was a thing of extraordinary beauty, and I was able to laugh at my own silliness in wanting it to be something different. Hopkins dedicated the poem to 'Christ our Lord' and I too dedicate such moments to Him. 

The Windhover
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-

    dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, 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! 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 hiding

Stirred 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 billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!


   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.