Gerard Manley Hopkins – ‘Pied Beauty’
Hopkins was born in 1844, and died just 45 years later, in 1889, but in this relatively short life he wrote some of the most startling and original poetry of the whole 19th Century. He was a deeply intellectual and religious man, and became a Jesuit priest in 1877, the same year in which he wrote ‘Pied Beauty’.
Throughout his life Hopkins was deeply fond of the countryside and its beauty, in which he could see the work and power of God. In ‘Pied Beauty’ he expresses his delight and astonishment at the sheer diversity of nature.
‘Pied Beauty’ is a short poem, but a complex one in both its meaning and its form. The lines are generally iambic in basis, though while some are regular (lines 2 and 3, for instance, and line 10) others are certainly not, though the iambic beat can still be felt (lines 4 or 8, for instance). What effect, or effects, does this irregularity have? The short final line has been mentioned already, and its completion of the praise with which the whole poem began is very striking and very powerful. Given the brevity of the poem, too, the rhyme scheme is fairly complex (ABCABCDBCDC), though this is something that is unlikely to be noticed when actually reading the poem aloud; it does, however, ensure that despite the altering rhythms the poem never loses its tightness and focus. Given the date when Hopkins was writing, this is quite a daring style, far removed from much of the conventional formality of his Victorian contemporaries.
In lines 3 to 5, he is struck by the way in which so many things – skies, cattle, fish, leaves, birds, the landscape itself – all have different and multiple colours and shapes. Even man-made things are equally attractive, and he finds himself full of wonder at the constant changes and contrasts in everything that he sees.
The most powerful thing of all, however, is that all these changing things are created by God, for Hopkins the one unchanging being, and all he can do in the final line of the poem is to express his amazement in a short, utterly simple and almost breathless short line.
Some points for classroom discussion
There are some very unusual and initially difficult words in the poem, some of which Hopkins has apparently invented – ‘couple-colour’, ‘fresh-firecoal’, fathers-forth’, for example. What do you notice about each of these words? What makes them so effective?
Walt Whitman from ’Song of Myself’.
Some useful material on Hopkins’ life and work can be found on these websites: