On the Guardian website earlier this month, Carol Rumens hymned the praises of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘startlingly experimental’ sonnet ‘The Windhover’. As Rumens points out, although the poem is intricate, metaphysical and allusive, it draws great energy from the straightforward but sensational description of a kestrel in flight: “As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/ Rebuffed the big wind.”
I was reminded of the brilliant aptness of this imagery yesterday during a walk across the Castle Hill nature reserve, east of Brighton. No sooner had my friends and I climbed the gentle slope than we saw the kestrel hovering above the chalk grasslands. Behind us to the south-west, the city and the sea shimmered in the sun, but our eyes were fixed on the bird’s beautiful stillness.
Around the corner and we were brutally back in the modern world, returned to what Wyndham Lewis called the ‘moronic inferno’. A burnt-out and abandoned car lay upended in an open field like some casually dispatched vermin.
This is not to say that all urban life is ugly while the country is a pastoral paradise. Later on, past Balsdean Farm, a dead sheep lay in a field, its eyes pecked out by crows. Only the wilfully innocent can ignore the fact that today’s cute lamb is tomorrow’s lunch.
Beauty and brutality are handmaidens, as Hopkins knew: “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.”