Commentary on ‘Pied Beauty’ by Hopkins

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

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 stiple 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 father’s-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

Commentary

The poem shows Hopkins at his innovative best.  Everything is condensed, distilled, pared back to the bare essentials.  His use of comma and semi-colon, compound words, alliteration and simile are examples of his craft.  The poem packs a huge amount of detail and contrast and comparison into its ten short lines.

The theme of the poem is the gratitude he expresses to God for the variety and imperfection in Nature, in the implements used by man, for the lesser earthly things, for the two-tone things in life that add beauty by simply being different.  He may also be pointing out that God is perfect in sharp contrast to all the imperfection seen on earth.  Maybe the message is that variety is the spice of life!

The overall tone of the poem is one of praise and wonder – wonder at the variety and contrast to be seen everywhere in God’s creation.  The word ‘pie’ is of Medieval Latin origin and here it means spotted, two-toned or striped.  We still use the word today in words like magpie or piebald; someone is said to be pie-eyed drunk; we’ve all heard of pie in the sky; of course Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; and where would we be today without our pie charts? When dealing with Hopkins we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box and there is even room to think of a pastry pie made of assorted fruits – mother’s award winning apple pie even!

The opening line introduces us straight away to the idea of variety and mixture with the word ‘dappled’ (streaked) and, from then on we are among things that have two aspects, the ‘couple-coloured’ are compared, by way of a simile, to a spotted (‘brinded’) cow.  We have no problem with this comparison today because all our Irish cows are ‘couple-coloured’ anyway but this wasn’t always the case.  The ‘rose-moles’ on the sides of the speckled trout are compared to the once fashionable moles applied to a woman’s cheeks to enhance her beauty.  The sound of the word ‘dappled’ is echoed through the poem in words like ‘couple’, ‘stipple’, ‘tackle’, ‘fickle’, ‘freckled’, ‘adazzle’.  Hopkins’ use of compound words like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘chestnut-falls’ adds to the overall sense of compression in the poem.  The coals of the fire are both red and black, and the windfall chestnuts are often mahogany and beige.  The similarity between the coals and the chestnuts is classic Hopkins.  Some of these innovative compound words are very unusual, but their very oddness helps the poet to convey the idea of diversity, variety and imperfection as well as adding freshness to the poem.

Hopkins then mentions the birds with their variety of feathers.  He is ever the priest looking for good material for his Sunday homily and he once spoke of the sun, stars, birds and bees giving glory to God without their realising that they were doing so.  Man can also give this glory to God and mean it.  Perhaps he is contrasting and juxtaposing his own intentional praise of God in this poem with the finches instinctive song of praise.

Next we are given the beautiful patchwork quilt image of the landscape with its pastures, meadows, cornfields and ploughed fields.  ‘Fold’ suggests a sheepfold, ‘fallow’ suggests land being rested after producing a crop and ‘plough’ suggests land newly tilled and ready for a new crop.  It should be very easy for us today to imagine such a sight with our ever increasing use of aerial photography and the use of drones to take photographs from the air.  Hopkins, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that this is a God’s-eye view looking down on the things He has created.

In the fifth and sixth lines the poet is praising the work of man and here also there is an infinite variety in the different types of work performed by man and also a great variety in the implements he uses to carry out his various tasks.  All these also give glory to God.

The final five lines are a masterclass in the compression of ideas: God creates all the varying contrasts in life, all things odd, original, spotted.  We are then dramatically ordered by the poet to praise God for these things.  ‘Fathers-forth’ is a strange compound word.  To me this suggests and echoes the creation story in Genesis: God magically clicking his fingers and saying ‘Let there be light!’  ‘Counter’ means contrasting with what is usual, as in ‘counter argument’, ‘spare’ can mean both ‘scarce’ or ‘more than enough’ or ‘left over’.  This is exactly what Hopkins is about here: he is trying to show us that there are contradictions within things (even in words).  Hopkins uses great technique here in line 9 by placing these contrasting words together side by side without any connecting word or verb and also with his use of alliteration.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A FURTHER NOTE ON HOPKINS’S TECHNIQUE

Hopkins deliberately set out to be innovative and to create a new type of verse, and so he broke many of the accepted ‘rules’ of poetry – rules of grammar, the order of words in the sentence, making up his own words, especially compound words, and so on.  In fact, to give further credence to the idea of compression used here, the poem actually reads like a ten line sonnet!  His words and phrases are actions as well as sounds, ideas and images.  He uses very few verbs and this is accommodated by his repeated use of the semi-colon.  The words must be read with the ear and the body as well as the eye.  He obviously feels what he sees.  This is the challenge for us when we come to study any poem by Hopkins.  In coming to our own interpretation of the poem we must not forget the music, and his appeal to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.

Hopkins has been called ‘the poet of energy’. Notice the rush of words in the first three lines and then he pauses as he ticks off his ‘shopping list’ as it were: ‘fold, fallow and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’.  The energy is also made possible by the scarcity of verbs and by his use of alliteration.  In his great poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’, he says that the earth and all things in it are ‘charged’ with God (like a battery – and long before they were even invented!).  This poem, too, like many others is full of God – it is, in fact, a prayer, a spiritual meditation.

As I said earlier the poem reads like a shortened sonnet and Hopkins called it a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ (curtailed).  There are only ten and a half lines instead of the usual fourteen lines and unlike the usual sonnet, which is concerned with the number of syllables, Hopkins here is only concerned with stressed syllables.  Therefore, in this poem, there are five stressed syllables to each line, with two in the final line.  This, however, is just something for you to know; don’t let it interfere with your enjoyment or reaction to the poem.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A more comprehensive analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is available here

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