In a recent post of mine, one of the comments
made mention of the 1887 Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "The Windhover"
. It is a difficult poem to read – "very dense [...], hard to understand at the first few (dozen!) readings" was how the commenter described it.
This aforementioned density includes the density of metaphor and simile in Hopkins's words, and additionally the density of now-obscure terms. A look at a reading of the poem
(this one is by George P. Landow of Brown University) demonstrates how complex it is. As an example here, I quote one sentence from the middle of the poem:
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 & gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. [...]
In these three and a half lines, we have two examples of difficult vocabulary (an obscure usage of "rung", and "wimpling"), a metaphor right alongside them ("the rein of a wimpling wing"), another metaphor ("off forth on swing"), and a simile with a third metaphor inside it (the "skate's heel" and the "bow-bend", respectively). What do all of these things mean?
First, what does "rung" mean, in this context?
According to John Harrington and Peter Hornsburgh (the writers of the information linked), in falconry "to ring" is to ascend in a tight spiral, and the reference to "rein" may relate to the practice of lunging horses. In addition, they inform us that "wimpling" may mean "rippling" – a definition borne out by the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary
. Going back to Professor Landow's 'translation' of Hopkins's words, we also find that the "off forth on swing" metaphor might allude to the same kind of swing which is found in playgrounds. Finally, the "skate's heel" might be the heel of an ice-skater, and the "bow-bend" which it sweeps might be the smooth curve of a longbow.
That's a lot of work, considering that's only a quarter of the poem. "If it's so hard to understand, then why read it?" you might ask. Or, rather, I might ask. Or, still more precisely, I did
The answer – I don't know. I might observe that the poem is well-written, or at least widely considered so. I might suggest that the poem contains many useful words, good for forming a broad vocabulary. I might mention that the poem is famous literature, and has cultural significance. I might give any reason.
When you choose to read a poem, when you choose to take the time to research it so that you can really read
it, you will get benefits from it. But should you read it?
The answer is just "I don't know" again. Or "Make your own decision". Or even "Do you want to?"
I do. I like vocabulary, I like culture, and I like good poetry.