My essay, “Revelation and Transformation: Avian Imagery in Gerard Manly Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty,’ ‘The Windover,’ and ‘God’s Grandeur,‘ now appears in Integrité: A Faith and Learning Journal (Fall 2018): 25-38.
“The religious, meditative quality of these poems is well-known and widely-acknowledged. So too is their starting point and source of inspiration: the beauty of the natural world – especially its avifauna. Hopkins certainly noticed the “finches’ wings” he mentions in “Pied Beauty” and the Common Kestrel he describes in “The Windover” in nature, and his comparison of the Holy Spirit to a bird who “broods” in “God’s Grandeur,” in language that evokes the creation narrative of Genesis and the traditional, biblical comparison of the Holy Spirit to the dove, also appears to have a direct connection to his lived experience, for he wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Bridges of birds brooding and making their nests in boughs. As this essay will show, the birds in these poems are revealed through Hopkins’ poetic descriptions, but their significance is heightened, and indeed, transformed, in order to align with the themes of his poems. These themes are God’s immutability, God’s immanence, and God’s intimate care for the created world.
Three major cultural developments in Hopkins’ Victorian society provide contexts for interpreting these sonnets and their avian imagery: theories of natural selection, the invention of photography, and the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Evidence from Hopkins’ life and letters shows his awareness of “Darwinism”; ephemera associated with Hopkins and his extended family, including the carte de viste, show his familiarity with the popularity of portrait photography. The poet certainly echoes the complaints of other nineteenth-century poets about the damaging effects of industrialization. The evidence of his general knowledge of these wide-spread cultural shifts in Victorian England lends support to a literary-critical investigation of how Hopkins may be responding to such developments in in his sonnets in ways that previously have not been recognized.
As this essay will suggest, Hopkins’ reference to “finches’ wings” in “Pied Beauty” can be read as a subtle response to Darwin’s use of “Galapagos finches,” described in a study he published as a prelude to On the Origin of the Species (1859); this reading is consonant with the theme of God’s immutability celebrated in the poem. In “The Windover,” Hopkins appears to be incorporating Henry Fox Talbot’s pioneering developments in photography in his description of a Common Kestrel. In his book, The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), Talbot described photography as “light” that “draws” pictures. Likewise, Hopkins writes of how the dawn has “drawn” the windover that he equates with Christ, a comparison which supports the theme of God’s immanence in the poem. Finally, in “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins is contrasting the effects of industrialization, which he associates with the Fall, to the ongoing, intimate, and creative care of the Holy Spirit for the world, which he depicts in his poem.”