Forbidden words – “vermilion” in Hopkins’ “The Windhover”

I’ve just been introduced to a list of “forbidden words” in poetry. “Vermilion” is one of them. But look at Hopkins’ “The Windhover” – how he makes “vermilion” burst off the tongue with a sense of sudden release and then settle into quietness. There are bigger miracles in the poem, of course, but I want to talk about this one in the context of the idea that some words are too clichéd for us to use in our poems.


The Windhover

To Christ Our Lord

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.


Why does the forbidden word work well here? Well, because it works, like everything else in the poem– vigorously, energetically, and in many different ways at the same time. Attempts to analyze how it all comes together collapse into bathos because so many different forces are interacting on so many different levels at once that the mind dazzles when it tries to distinguish different processes. However, it’s clear that a great deal is to do with the power of the poem’s phonetic texture – not just how the words sound when you hear them but the way they feel in the mouth when you say them, where in the mouth particular phonemes are formed, the specific muscular activity involved in each and the flow of action as one succeeds another.

In fact the poem’s phonetic density is probably the first thing that really strikes you about it. This isn’t just a matter of noticing that there’s a lot of alliteration, assonance and so on, it’s something much more immediate, more instinctive and intimately physical. As soon as you start speaking it, your mouth is forced into extra activity. I don’t normally move my lips much when I speak. Reading “The Windhover”, though, I find my mouth working like the mouth of a Channel Four reporter played back at double speed. It’s partly a matter of the poem’s exalted tone, its declamatory and incantatory style, it’s partly to do with projecting the soaring, sweeping emotions and sharp changes of emotional gear, and it’s partly to do with the vocal stance required for powering through the long arcs of sound and syntax that force you into a stark choice between vigorous projection and mumbling collapse – for example when you have to negotiate that extraordinary noun phrase “the rolling level underneath him steady air” with its unhyphenated compound adjective. Without going into the technicalities of “sprung rhythm” – something I’m never quite sure whether I understand or not – it’s partly to do with how emphatic the stresses are and how strongly marked the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables is. I’m no phonetician, but I’d say it’s also to do with how much we’re using the front of the mouth at the start of the poem: for example, the repeated “m” sounds at the start of stressed syllables in the first line (“morning morning’s minion”) strongly activate the lips, and all those “d”s at the beginning of stressed syllables in the second line throw the tip of the tongue into vigorous action against the alveolar ridge of gum behind the teeth. Such heightened phonetic activity on our part also makes us more phonetically aware as we read.

The kind of reading induced by the whole poem shapes our response to the final tercet and the impact of “vermilion” coming where it comes. Here, instead of the fast-moving, sweeping dynamics that dominate the first eight lines, or the explosiveness of the next three, there’s a slow, laboured heaviness about the activity described in “shéer plód makes plough down sillion / Shine”, a heaviness echoed in the texture of the words by the slowing effect of the run of adjacent stressed syllables (there’s a similar slowing run of stressed syllables in “blue-bleak embers”) and by the way the sharp enjambement throws extra weight on “shine”.[1]


…..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.


“Sillion” and “vermilion” stand out not only because they rhyme on two syllables but also because the short “i” sound in them hasn’t been clearly heard since “billion” (though present in “it” and “lovelier”, it’s almost completely swallowed in the first of these and elided in the second). With “vermilion” we complete a sequence that goes back not only to the fully rhyming “billion” and “sillion” of the sestet but also to “minion” in line one, and that includes all those stressed and unstressed “–ing” rhymes in the octave. This loop of sound stands out clearly because there are relatively few other short “i” sounds in the poem. What makes “vermilion” round it off so beautifully is a subtle difference in the cadence of this word in its context, as compared to “billion” and “sillion” in theirs. “Billion” and “sillion” are each pregnant with the following word, “times” or “shine”, as our minds and vocal intonation lean out over the enjambed line ending in anticipation of a completion of sense that is yet to come. But there’s nothing to come after “vermilion”. The unstressed, softly lingering conclusion of the word fades into contemplative silence. That’s what I meant when I said that the word “vermilion” “settles into quietness”. The other effect – the impression of something bursting forth – comes from a number of factors, too many to enumerate. One works in a purely imagistic way – the radiant beauty of “gold-vermilion” leaps out in startling contrast with the only other explicit colour reference, the grey blue of “blue-bleak embers”. In purely phonetic terms, there’s the way the soft sounds of “vermilion” releases us from the strenuous articulation that so dominates the rest of the poem. In a combination of the two, there’s the way “gold-vermilion” seems almost to enact the moment of escape from a preceding violence and pain, or, to put it in religious terms appropriate to the way the colours are used in religious iconography, the moment of grace. “Gall” and “gash” with their emphatic hard “g”s fuse violence of sound with violence of image. For a moment it seems as if the hard “g” of “gold” is going to maintain that kind of pressure, suddenly there’s a miraculous release: “gold-vermilion”.

None of this is to invalidate the list, of course. Hopkins was a genius. We who use words in a comparatively flat and one-dimensional way do need to be careful how we use overused “poetic” vocabulary. But every word swarms with potential energy if we can only find ways of releasing it.




[1] A principle called “isochrony” comes into play here. Roughly speaking, we tend to utter stressed syllables in an equally spaced way, or to perceive them as equally spaced. Two or more adjacent stressed syllables seem to move slowly. The more unstressed syllables there are between the stressed ones, the faster the words seem to move. “John walked” sounds slow and heavy, “Johnny walked” sounds faster, “Johnny was walking” faster still, and so on. “No wonder of it” trips rapidly off the tongue, emphasizing the slowness of the following words by contrast.

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