Sunday Poetry: Pied Beauty, By Gerard Manley Hopkins

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;
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:
Praise him.

– by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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I am a late-comer to appreciation of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Reading this poem aloud affirms both my views of his work. On the negative, it is tongue-tripping with words we don’t use. On the positive, it is tongue-tripping with fresh words.

The tongue-tripping comes from his rejection of iambic meter (dah-DAH, dah-DAH, dah-DAH). For small-minded readers like me, iambic meter is the skeleton of English language poetry – everything else is hung off of it. But Hopkins went back and read the early poetry and resurrected what he called “falling paeonic rhythm, sprung and outriding”. It’s complicated stuff for doctoral students to argue about, and, if you’re interested by that kind of thing, a world of scholarship awaits you.

For me, I appreciate the assurance that he didn’t just throw words onto paper and think they sounded nice – he labored over his poems and constructed them with purpose. I think artists need to suffer a little, even if I don’t comprehend exactly how.

This poem will confound the literal-minded, but they gain their revenge by littering it with explanations in the form of “Notes”. What is “couple-colored”? What is a brinded cow? What are “rose-moles”? “Pieced-fold”?? Vengeful editors have dappled Hopkins’ work with intrusive explanations.

The only thing you really need to know to love this poem is that “pied” means “dappled” or “spotted”, and then sit back and let the poem happen. Everything he is talking about is spotted and dappled. Cows have spots and trout have spots. Et cetera. Just relax and enjoy the poem, without choking the life out of it by seizing every single word by the throat and trying to squeeze the etymology out of it.

I couldn’t understand Hopkins until I stopped trying so damned hard.

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