I don’t suppose I ever imagined that I’d one day be indebted to Frank Skinner. This week, though, I find that I am, but it is not because of a few laughs from one of his comedy routines, nor for arguably the greatest football song of all time, ‘Three Lions on a Shirt’, first sung more than twenty four years ago which, incredibly, is now twenty four more ‘years of hurt’ than the original thirty. No, what I feel so grateful to him for is his introducing me, via ‘The Frank Skinner Poetry Podcast’, to a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins called The Windhover. It goes like this;
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.
If you’re anything like me, somebody who would like to understand poetry but who, without help, seldom does, you might, at this point, be struggling. So was I. But having had my eyes and ears opened, it’s now coming home to me what a truly wonderful sonnet this is.
So what’s it all about and why do I fund myself loving it so much? Well, here’s the thing, and I should say I’m following Frank Skinner in what follows. At face value the sonnet is about somebody watching a falcon, a windhover, in flight. The opening lines describe the falcon as the highly favoured prince of the kingdom of the morning. The beautiful use of words mirror the beauty of this regal bird as it flies, masterfully occupying its place in the world. It’s a sight that stirs the observer’s heart, a heart that often conceals its feelings, and causes it to feel, and express, true wonder. The one who watches unmistakably delights in what they are seeing. They are in awe.
And then, in the second section of the sonnet, as the praise of the falcon reaches it apex, something changes. Everything stops with the word ‘buckle’. The dauphin has become a chevalier, a prince has become a knight. The bird who once was royalty, has now become one who serves, and in so doing, though more dangerous, has become more beautiful still.
Gerard Manley Hopkins dedicated ‘The Windhover’, by way of its subtitle, ‘To Christ our Lord’ and this helps us understand what is going on in the sonnet. Like the falcon, Christ is Lord of all, beautiful in his holiness, masterful in his kingdom. But, like the falcon, he buckled and became one who serves, a knight fighting on behalf of others, when he, like a bird of prey, descended to earth. And his humbling of himself is, itself, a thing of beauty that renders him a billion times more lovelier than he was before. Like the observer who, whilst delighting in the beauty of the falcon in flight, is filled with even greater awe seeing it in its descent, we too should marvel, not just at the glory of God displayed in the heavens, but even more so at the realisation that ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ [John 1:14] There is glory to be seen in God in all his majestic divinity, but there is greater glory still to be seen in the realisation that, in Jesus, he became a man.
Which brings us to the last three lines of the poem. What a contrast! ‘Sillion’ is the name given to the shiny soil that is turned over by a plough, the result of back breaking labour, ‘sheer plod’. There is beauty in hard work and especially the work Jesus undertook on earth. And it is here that a beautiful switch occurs in the poem. It is no longer the falcon who is a picture of Christ, but rather Jesus is represented now by the falcon’s prey. The violent, goriness of the final line of the poem is surely reminiscent of the crucifixion with its mention of gall and gash, a wound of ‘gold-vermillion’, blood red yet infinitely precious.
And so in the poem we have the falcon as a metaphor for a God who, though gloriously majestic, supreme in the heavens, is also one who works, a suffering servant. Jesus is the one who, though fully God, became fully man and ultimately ‘humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’. [Philippians 2:8]
And, paradoxically, it is this descent, this humiliation, that is ultimately a billion times more lovely and more dangerous. As Frank Skinner brilliantly puts it, ‘Humility is a super power. The grandeur of God is of course exciting, that is the big showbiz headline, but it is down and dirty and getting nails knocked in your hands where the real work of God happens’.
So, on seeing such glory, may our hearts also be stirred.
And as they are, just as the falcon buckled at the start of its descent, may we, at the start of ours, be pleased to buckle too. At the knee.
‘God has highly exalted [Jesus] and bestowed on him the name that is above every name’. Therefore ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ [Philippians 2:9-11]
So thank you Frank Skinner, thank you Gerard Manley Hopkins – and a thank you too, to The Windhover.
Do have a listen to Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast – and catch something of his enthusiasm for the poem. It really is well worth it.
For some thoughts, medical and theological, on ‘The Dry Salvages’ by T.S. Eliot see, ‘T.S.Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life’ by clicking here
And for some thoughts, medical and theological, on ‘Enivrez vous’ by Charles Baudelaire see ‘Be Drunk‘ by clicking here