What is sillion?

Why does it shine?

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Every now and then we receive a batch of queries about ploughing. Usually they coincide with a literary programme on the BBC revisiting the poem The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord by Gerard Manley Hopkins. We suspect that the poem crops up in an exam syllabus as well.

The usual question is: "What is sillion and why does it shine?"

The poem and the answer

The poem is really about birdwatching or kestrel watching. Here it is:

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: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sillion is usually called the slice or furrow-slice sometimes the mould. It is the thick body of soil that is turned over by the plough.

As far as I am aware sillion is not a term in modern use and is probably dialect. The word may be onomatopoeic and derive from the sound of a single furrow horse plough in use.

Shine? — When freshly cut a plastic soil with a high clay content does take on a sheen and, from a distance, the whole field may gleam for a while in low sunshine.

Sheer plod? — Horse ploughing involves a lot of walking.

Derek Moody