Inscapes: I The Windhover


Inscapes‘ first movement is a vivid musical depiction of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poet masterpiece, “The Windhover.” Its many musical gestures — suggestive of a kestrel’s flight in its struggles against the wind — are distributed antiphonally between the two choirs.  The movement culminates in a powerful musical response to Hopkins’ revelatory associations in the poem’s stunning final stanza, which closes with the bravura of a poet whose word-quiver is full of sharp arrows, each hitting their mark in wounding succession: “…and blue-bleak embers…fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”


A licensed copy is required for each member performing.


Notes on the poem

“The Windhover,” considered by Gerard Manley Hopkins himself to be his greatest poetic achievement, is an ecstatic meditation on a kestrel in flight – called “windhover” because of its ability to fly at the same speed as the opposing wind and therefore to hover without moving.

In this poem, Hopkins’ nature mysticism and his Christian mysticism come together.  He sees in the bird’s struggle against the wind both the revelation of its own essential nature (“inscape”) and the revelation of Christ, whose essence – according to Christian doctrine – was most fully revealed in being utterly opposed by all forces, eternal and temporal.

After waxing über-ecstatically about Christ’s illumined being – “a billion times told lovelier” than the magnificent kestrel – the poet comes “down to earth” and notes that this is simply the way of all things: in being opposed – in struggle, in sacrifice – each thing’s essential nature is laid bare.

No wónder of it: shéer plód makes plóugh down síllion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themsélves, and gash góld-vermílion.

Even the humble plough, rusty by the end of winter, shines bright silver after the struggle of being forced through hard ground.  And embers – “blue-bleak” and seemingly burned out – may suddenly “gash gold-vermilion” when the poker “galls” them, revealing their glowing centers.  While the poem’s final extraordinary phrase almost seems to suggest Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, his side pierced and flowing with blood, one senses rather that it is the heart of the poet – formerly “in hiding” – that now overflows in burning praise.  The interjection “ah my dear” is a direct reference to George Herbert’s devotional poem “Love Bade Me Welcome” – which, like “The Windhover,” is the earnest address of a penitent soul to his Lord.

Notes on the piece

There is a vastness of scope in Hopkins’ poem, which begins with the windhover floating high above the earth, then swooping down through the air in wide arcs.  The poem’s middle section seems to suggest the rapid, strong currents of the wind itself, while the ending settles “down to earth” with images of field and hearth.  The musical setting simply attempts to traverse the skies and terrain with Hopkins, while maintaining unity as a composition.  Because successive sections suggest shifting timbres, singers may imagine themselves as much an orchestra as a choir.

One additional image may help the poem’s final, miraculous phrase come to livelier life in the singer’s mind: “and blue-bleak embers…fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”   The music here suggests large dynamic forces, although fire-coals themselves slowly burn out without much discernible drama.  But anyone who has leaned close to a dying fire knows the absolute intensity of heat that the coals retain.  So, I conceived of the ending as a magnification – where the falling coals are not small, but towering, like huge chunks of glacier falling mightily into the ocean.  Such is the punch that Hopkins’ poem packs, and one attempts to paint as vividly with music as he does with words.

The Windhover:
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rólling level úndernéath him steady áir, and stríding
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 wónder of it: shéer plód makes plóugh down síllion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themsélves, and gásh góld-vermílion.

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SATB double choir

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