Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877): An Analysis

 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 all trades, 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.

It’s been some time since I did a close reading of a nineteenth-century poem on my blog, so today I thought I’d write about “Pied Beauty,” a short and, I think, wonderful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which was written in 1877.

The Argument of the Poem: Hopkins calls on the reader to praise God, who he says created many things in nature that are awe-inspiring for their irregularity, variety, and changeability. These include natural wonders (the sky, which changes color, and chestnuts, which reveal their insides like coals in a fire when they fall and break), animals (cows, trout, finches), and instances of humankind’s impact on the world around us (agriculture, sectioning off the landscape into fields, and other trades, which interact with nature). He closes the poem by contrasting these “dappled things” with God, whose beauty is unchanging and permanent. 

Similarity and Difference: Hopkins uses various literary techniques to meditate on his themes of similarity vs. variety. He employs alliteration (the use of the same starting letter) and internal rhyme, to create a series of pairs throughout the poem (couple-colour; fresh-firecoal; plotted and pierced; fickle, freckled; fathers-forth), giving us a sense of the intelligent design he sees behind the randomness of nature. And he also uses the same technique to pair words with opposite meanings (swift, slow; sweet, sour), which helps downplay their difference and attributes them all to the same higher power. The rhyme scheme of the poem’s lines also plays into this, encouraging us to link the cow to the plough, things to wings, strange to change, and so on. 

Rhetoric: Hopkins was a lover of rhythm, who invented his own schematic for marking emphasis in poetry. And we can see that this is a poem that almost demands to be read aloud. In addition to the repetitions, alliterations, and rhymes mentioned above, the poem starts with a familiar invocation to prayer ("Glory be to God") and ends with one too ("Praise him"). There is also a rhetorical question ("who knows how?") in the middle, which suggests however much we meditate on nature and glorify God, his actions will still remain mysterious. 

Pairing the High with the Low: One thing I love about this poem is how it soars to lofty heights, but then pulls us back to earth, giving us the impression of a poet who is humble and a God for whom all things and creatures matter—great and small. Hopkins compares multicolored sunsets to the hide of a cow. He rhymes his final word, "him," which references God, with the usually not so flattering word “dim.” And he pairs a word that’s strongly associated with beauty, “rose,” with the decided less elegant “moles” to show how he finds beauty in all things. In short, again and again, he delivers on the promise made by the title of the poem—this is about “Pied Beauty,” which doesn’t have to be a contradiction.

What Victorian poem would you like to read me write about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. In the mood for more poetry? Check out my blog posts on Tennyson (“The Lady of Shallot,” “Ulysses,” “The Kraken,” “To Virgil,” and “The Epic”), Swinburne, Longfellow, Barrett Browning, and Mew.

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