A Brief Look at… ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;

      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                  Praise him.

Hopkins is the kind of poet you can really fall in love with – his style, though carefully metered, is multi-coloured, luminescent, brands the reader’s eyes and begs to be read aloud. Even 150 years later, his poems still feel fresh, innovative and modern.

‘Pied Beauty’ is his most well-known and loved poem; it’s a poem about the beauty of ‘pied’ things – that is, things of two colours or shades, light and dark, black and white. 

The first line puts Hopkins’ faith front and centre; he was a Jesuit priest and many of his poems are approached from the angle of faith. The double-coloured ‘things’ that Hopkins describes are his way of celebrating difference and diversity in God’s creation.

Hopkins’ defining feature as a poet is not his ‘Christian-ness’ though , which on its own would have likely prevented his poems from withstanding the passage of time through to our secular era. Hopkins’ strength was his use of the English language in innovative ways: his signature compound nouns and adjectives that took existing, stale language and created new, evocative and emotional images.

When you look closely at the language he uses it soon becomes apparent that there is something ‘pure’ about his choice of vocabulary – there is a uniformity of language that he very purposefully selects; he avoids the Latinate and the Greek and other influences that are part and parcel of our everyday, mixed-race English, and chooses instead to use the Anglo-Saxon – the ‘Old’ English. Throw the words from ‘Pied Beauty’ into an etymological dictionary and they are almost all of Old English origin.

That’s not the only Anglo-Saxon English connection – the alliterative runs that he uses are typical of Old English heroic poetry – yet Hopkins takes this style and creates something thoroughly modern.

There is poise too – Hopkins isn’t just inventing new words and playing a sort of Victorian word game – he keeps the metre tight in the Curtal Sonnet form (a variation of the sonnet that he invented himself) and the rhymes full; he perfectly begins runs of alliterative and assonant lines with sounds that morph into other sounds – perhaps as a symbol of the flux of the natural phenomena he is describing:

‘Fold, fallow and plough’, or

‘… swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;’

The poem finishes as it starts: in contrast to the fickle and transitory nature of every thing in the world, Hopkins returns to God whose ‘beauty is past change’ and his exhortation to ‘Praise him’.

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