Creation As Worship in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”
“Pied Beauty” reads like a burst of verbal fireworks. In the first four lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins paints a couple-colored sky—stippled trout flashing in the water—fiery chestnuts in mid-fall. Saturated colors, movement, sound, contrasting opposites and exuberant neologisms abound in each line, as though the text were drunk on the variation and mystery of God’s dappled world. But a closer read reveals that the author uses a strict rhyme scheme and structure to build a framework in which the lavish language can luxuriate. The beauty of raw sensual experience—the various, the changeable—becomes a counterpoint to the stable, less perceptible beauty that is “past change.” In this way the poet celebrates his Creator by mimicking the act of creation, and he “fathers forth” in both creative senses—with an artist’s divine frenzy, and with a divine law-giver’s gift for order and symmetry.
Hopkins bookends the poem with a prayer. “Glory be to God… Praise Him,” are the first and last words of the poem. We start with God, spend eight lines enjoying his panoply, and end with an imperative to “Praise him” for what we have just enjoyed. The beginning brings us around to the somber, logical end. “Glory” and “God” have long vowels suitable for a slow poem of worship. “Praise,” likewise, makes us linger on the diphthong. The final words “Praise him” get pride of place in their own terminal half-line. What comes in between is a different kind of reverence: an expression of pure visual, aural, and linguistic joy. After the assonance of “Glory be to God,” the poem’s pulse quickens. Hopkins introduces us to his signature “sprung” rhythm: stressed syllables followed by indeterminate numbers of unstressed ones. Hopkins innovated this stop-and-start meter in order to evoke nature’s sublime indeterminacy. We find “dapple,” “couple-color,” “stipple,” each with clipped vowels, pattering Ps, which carry us along at a brisk trot. But now and then we must slow down to meditate on some long vowels and groupings of stressed syllables. We pause a moment on the O sound in “cow,” linger on the spondees “rose-moles,” “trout that swim,” and “fresh-firecoal.” Lest we sneak an unstressed beat into “All trades,” Hopkins provides diacritical marks to indicate that we’re to read the words as a spondee (with accents acutes on the long A sounds). Hopkins’ “sprung” rhythm might give us a facsimile of nature’s disorder. But the pattern only appears random. In actual fact, each sound is deliberately chosen.
Phonetically, the poem makes liberal use of alliteration to create associations between words that are not generally related. “Couple” and “color” are allied by hyphen, apposition and alliteration, effectively coining a new word and principle of organization. We’ve not heard the compound “couple-color” before but can easily understand it as an example of something “pied.” Likewise “-fall; finches,” “spare, strange,” “fickle, freckled,” “swift, slow, sweet, sour,” “adazzle, dim” make the synapses between words fire—giving words with ambiguous or contradictory meanings such as “swift” and “slow” new relationships to each other. “Fall” and “finches” are connected, not spatially but linguistically. The words, taken together, do double-duty: they evoke a referent and they are units of sound, just as our understanding of natural phenomena is twofold: we think of phenomena as abstract concepts—platonic ideals—and we experience them as unique, sensual events without any special meaning. The poem’s exploration of language’s “couple-coloredness” reinforces its thesis about creation’s duality, even down to the title word “pied.” “Pied” refers either to something visual—speckled, mottled, of two or more colors—or to something textual: type which has been jumbled in a typesetter’s case—a thing we can’t read, but that we understand to have an underlying order.
The rhyme scheme and structure of the poem give us a sense of Hopkins the law-giver—the unscrambler of the type. The rhyme scheme is not only very strict—ABCABC in the strophe and DBCDC in the antistrophe—but the poem is chock-full of slant and half rhymes: “brinded,” “swim,” and “finch” provide a sort of counter-rhythm which holds itself in tension with the end-of-line rhymes. Likewise “falls” and “fallow,” “fickle” and “freckled.” The “coal” in “firecoal” asks to be linked up with “fold” in the next line. If a logical connection can’t be made between them, a linguistic one nevertheless exists. The dominant rhymes often reinforce or contradict one another. “Cow” and “plough” are agricultural entities, one natural, one manmade. “Strange” contrasts with God’s beauty, which is “past change.” The poem ends on the word “him,” referring to God, and the word emerges in dazzling contrast to “dim,” two lines before. In fact, “him” is the rhyme that occurs most frequently and with the widest distribution throughout the poem, from line 3: “swim,” “trim,” “dim,” and “him.” The poem’s rhymes serve as a sort of frame in which all the transcendent chaos might roam.
The text’s images, however fickle and freckled they may appear, are far from haphazard. In the strophe, Hopkins celebrates the elements—air, water, fire and earth—in turn, by attaching elemental forces to specific objects in motion: air in the form of brindle skies; running water in which trout live; falling chestnuts likened to fire, and finally earth in the form of landscape, in varying stages of man’s interference with it—“fold, fallow, and plough.” These elements are components of the world as conceived by medieval metaphysicians, a taxonomy of governing forces, with close philosophical ties to what was seen as God’s divine order. After this inventory of metaphysical phenomena, we take two lines to celebrate human invention and industry: “gear and tackle and trim,” before moving on to the antistrophe, which, in keeping with a traditional sonnet’s sestet, moves into the realm of the abstract. We get adjectives referring to specific (not platonic) objects in the world: “counter, original, spare, strange… fickle, freckled… adazzle, dim,” and we see them set conceptually against the unchangeable force that “fathers forth” according to rules and patterns we can’t see. And that’s all we have room for in this “curtal” sonnet (a sonnet cut down to 10.5 lines—another of Hopkins’ poetic innovations)—just enough time for us to experience each thought as image, sound, word. This, Hopkins seems to say, is how nature is legible to us: a brief experience of movement and color, fleeting, gone as soon as it arrives. Like the type mixed up in the drawer, it conveys a larger, platonic significance that we can only partially apprehend.
Like his Creator, Hopkins fathers forth. His aural variations, his sounds, his use of opposites all evoke in the reader a sense of nature’s stochasticity. But the poetic whole describes not its component parts but a spiritual condition of seeing. The poet’s fecund images are brought into balance because they are subordinate to a strict logical and aesthetic framework. In this process, the author seeks to mirror God’s creation in all its beauty and contradiction, whose world, like pied type, holds chaos in tension with the internal logic—barely perceptible to us—that underpins it. God’s medium is nature. The poet’s medium is language. “Pied Beauty” suggests that mimetic power is in line with—is indeed the highest order of praise for—God’s invention.