Meditation 1: “Pied Beauty”

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;

        5

    And áll trádes, 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:

        10

                  Praise him.

“Pied Beauty” is one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s most famous poems, and thus has been anthologized time and again. This is the poem I think of most fondly when I think of Hopkins, for the last line struck me hard when I first read it. As you may have noted upon reading the poem, it’s not what most of us would call “easy to get.” For me personally, several of the words are somewhat foreign, so when I sensed the poet’s growing eagerness towards the end in his series of contrasts, the sudden conclusion—“Praise him”—caught me by surprise.

“What? I don’t follow. ‘Praise him’?” That’s what came to mind.

But let’s unravel some of these terms that may be new to us and see if we can walk our way through this poem and find ourselves at Hopkins’s same conclusion. First of all, the word “pied” is an adjective that means “having patches of two or more colors.” In its noun form—“pi”—it means “any confused mixture; jumble.” So with his title, Hopkins is preparing us to see something that is beautiful, namely, the unique mixtures that God has made in creation.

In the first stanza he discusses mixtures of color, as we might expect given the meaning of the word “pied.” He observes the sky, trout, burning chestnuts, finches’ wings, and the countryside, all of which are spotted or “dappled” or “couple-colored,” adorned as God has seen fit. Hopkins observes these things in creation and invents new ways to express what he’s seeing. One of the ways he does this is by “coupling” words that we don’t usually group in pairs: “rose-moles,” “firecoal,” and “chestnut-falls” are all examples of Hopkins joining words as God has joined colors in creation.

Notice that Hopkins moves out from nature—the sky and then to creatures in the sky and on the earth—to humans. “And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim” is his way of saying that like God has colored nature with variety, so mankind’s work is also colored in variety. Hopkins would have us “praise God” for these “dappled things” too.

In the second stanza of the poem, Hopkins turns our focus to the meaning behind these mixtures. He says “All things counter, original, spare, strange,” by which he intends for us to see that all of creation is a glorious variety… a “pied beauty” (if we recall the title). The “fickle” or changing admixture of color (“freckled”), speed (“swift, slow”), taste (“sweet, sour”), and sights (“adazzle, dim”) are all “fathered-forth” by God, the one “whose beauty is past change.” Do you see the subtle comparison here? All of God’s creation is beautiful in its changes, in its variety; God is beautiful in his changelessness. This is a wonder to Hopkins and it should be to us, so far as we’ve followed him in this poetic journey.

“Praise him.” It’s a good conclusion to this vision of God and his creation, don’t you think?

What do you think?

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About Kent Travis

If you are enjoying Kent Travis' teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What?  It's packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn't believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It's awesome!

Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.  

http://mkenttravis.com

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