A classic Hopkins poem analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Pied Beauty’ belongs to the middle period of the poetic career of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), that period when he had found his distinctive poetic voice but before he became plagued by depression later in his short life. The poem reflects this: ‘Pied Beauty’ is written by a poet who is confident in his style, and in his religious faith. Here are some thoughts on the poem, which might be considered some notes towards an analysis of it.
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:
In summary, Hopkins’s poem is a celebration of ‘pied’ things and the beauty of pied things: that is, things that are made up of two different colours, often containing black and white or dark colours with light colours. These ‘dappled things’ exist thanks to God, says Hopkins: they all reflect his creation. Whether it’s the ‘stipple’ (or freckled markings) on trout swimming in the water, or the wings of finches, or the contrast of colours (such as the black-and-white of clouds) in the sky, these depictions of ‘couple-colour’ in the world of nature are to be celebrated.
And why should they be celebrated? Because of their mixture of light and dark, of different colours and patterns? Partly. But it’s perhaps significant that many of the phenomena which Hopkins mentions – trout swimming, the wings of the (flying) finch, the changing appearance of the skies – are things in flux, which are not the same, or in the same place, from one hour to the next. Even the land of ‘fold, fallow, and plough’ is tilled, crops are planted, seeds are sown, things are cultivated: the world of ‘Pied Beauty’ is a world that is forever changing. In another of his poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes nature as a ‘Heraclitean Fire’, and Heraclitus, among other things, argued that everything exists in a state of flux: you cannot step into the same river twice, since the current of the river is always moving and changing. This notion of change is made explicit in the poem’s penultimate line: God’s beauty is the only beauty that is ‘past [i.e. beyond] change’, but everything else is destined to alter. ‘Pied Beauty’ is, in the last analysis, a poem about difference, and a celebration of difference – and not just between things but within the same thing. The sky like a piebald cow brings together black and white in glorious contrast. The river that trout swims in today is not the same river it swam in last week.
Hopkins conveys this sense of flux through utilising some of his trademark techniques, which are here imbued with an additional significance in light of the poem’s theme: so his fondness for compound words neatly captures this idea of two different things being joined in one: ‘couple-colour’, ‘rose-moles’, ‘chestnut-falls’, and ‘Fresh-firecoal’ (which is actually a triple compound, since ‘firecoal’ is itself a compounding). The two words are different and yet brought together through hyphenation (the word ‘hyphen’, by the way, literally means ‘under one’, because two or more things are brought together as one unit). Elsewhere, words rub up against each other, similar yet different: the sounds of words appear to change, to be in constant flux. So ‘tackle’ turns to ‘fickle’ which quickly changes into ‘freckled’; even the rhyme of ‘strange’ with ‘change’ points up the fact that things are rendered unfamiliar to us because they alter. So, although Hopkins’s poem is, on the surface, simply a song of praise to ‘dappled things’, it is also about the fast-paced movement of those things and the way that beauty is caught in a moment here, a sudden glance there.
In terms of its form, ‘Pied Beauty’ is an unusual form of sonnet invented by Hopkins himself: the ‘curtal sonnet’, comprising ten-and-a-half lines (since the final line is always much shorter than the other lines). This form allows the simple message of that final line, and Hopkins’s contrast between the world of fickle things and the unalterable world of God, to stand out and be more clearly heard. ‘Praise him.’
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Shortly after Sunrise, High Desert, California; by Jessie Eastland (2012); Wikimedia Commons.