Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins

We left off yesterday standing out in the moist evening air looking skyward with Walt Whitman in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer", which put me in mind of poems praising nature, which led to Gerard Manley Hopkins and "Pied Beauty".

Hopkins converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest, who worked with what he called "sprung rhythm", which was based in early Anglo-Saxon rhythms involving the placement of stressed syllables within a line and relying in part of repetition of words and sounds within a line. Rather than using iambic pentameter or any other fixed metre, his lines vary in length and placement of stressed syllables (akin to accentual verse), giving them a unique, organic feel and foreshadowing the coming of free verse.

If you have a few moments, read this one aloud, and you'll get the feel for what Hopkins was up to with his craft.

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 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.

Form: This particular poem is a "curtal sonnet". The curtal sonnet was a form invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and which he used in at least three poems. The curtal sonnet is composed of 10-1/2 lines, which Hopkins considered to be a Petrarchan sonnet condensed down to 3/4 its usual size. You can read Hopkins's justification for and mathematical explanation of the form at Wikipedia (yes, I just sent you to Wikipedia - it's as good an explanation as you'll find anywhere of what Hopkins was up to with this form). The rhyme scheme employed is ABCABC DBCDC.

The poem is not written in iambic pentameter as so many sonnets are, but uses "sprung rhythm", Manley's "invention" based on Anglo-Saxon poetry that used a lot of alliteration and lines which had a caesura in the middle. Anglo-Saxon poems generally had two stressed syllables per half, as described in more length in my 2008 post about Beowulf and Sir Gawain over at Guys Lit Wire.) In this particular poem, I count five accented syllables in most lines, although I'm hard-pressed to read "With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim" and not end up with six accented syllables. See those accents in the last line of the first stanza? Those were Manley's, and he meant for both "all" and "trades" to be read as accented syllables.

Discussion: The word "pied" in the title means spotted (or, if you prefer, dappled). This entire poem is in praise of things with spots, from trout to cows to the way the skies have spots of cloud or the fields, which are compared to a quilt: "Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow and plough".

The first six lines give examples of the pied things for which Manley is offering thanks; the second stanza (of four and one half lines) expands to thank the Lord for all of the things that might fit within this category. What I like about the second stanza is its ambiguity: is Manley telling all those things that are freckled, fickle, etc. to praise God, or is he praising God for having made them? The stanza reads well both ways, and I rather think that was on purpose. (I also think it was a deliberate echo of the Anglican hymn, "All Things Bright and Beautiful", written by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848, which lists off the creations of God, and which in turn may have been based on something Coleridge wrote in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". You can read a bit about Alexander in Sherry's post at semicolonblog. But I digress.)

I appreciate how Hopkins condensed the sonnet form down to a shorter approximation of itself, and how he managed to keep a rhyme scheme intact while varying his line lengths due to his use of sprung rhythm. It's interesting to see him, placed as he was at the end of the 19th century, finding ways to stay within form while breaking it at the same time. Clever, clever man.

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Joel said...

Thank you for this wonderful synopsis of one of Hopkins' more accessible yet always fascinating poems. I have been enjoying this poem since my second year of college (33 years ago!) when we covered Hopkins in an 18th century British poetry class at Clemson. Every time I read this or any other of his poems something new strikes me. As tot he last stanza, I seem to think he is listing off as it were the wonder of such created diversity, and which God whose beauty is without change "Father's forth." Yet the very last line which seems to call the reader to praise Him perhaps, echoing the last few Psalms in the Psalter, is also joining the chorus of praise already given back to the Father by this fickle and diverse creation.

Kelly Fineman said...

I didn't read much Hopkins in college, but now wish I had. A friend just recommended I read his letters and other prose, which I hope to get around to.

I think you're correct about the list forming part of a chorus of praise - you put it far better than I!