Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty”

I love this poem 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.

“Pied Beauty” is multi-colored, or variegated beauty. In essence, this is a poem about the beauty of imperfection. Glory be to God for dappled things, or in other words, spotted things. And the poem goes on to list examples. “Skies of couple-colour” sounds complicated, but it just means skies of mixed colors, as when white clouds are set against a blue background; hence, they are like a “brinded cow” (my auto-correct keeps trying to make it “branded”), or a cow with streaks or spots.

Then there are the spots “stippled” on a trout, like so,
a pile of chestnuts glowing like hot embers,
finches’ wings,
the beauty of a variegated landscape worked by human hands,
and the incredible variety of tools workers use to accomplish their trades.
As this catalogue suggests, the poem is intensely visual, but what I find truly seductive is the relationship between this visual imagery and the incredible sonic beauty of the poem’s language. Hopkins loved Old English, and he attempted to write poems that captured Old English verse’s rhythms and penchant for alliteration and consonance. The words of this poem feel deeply, intimately bound to one another. For example, note that the line ending with “brinded cow” not only rhymes with the line ending with “who knows how?” but that each of those lines centers internally on the alliteration of the hard c sound: couple-colour, cow, fickle, and freckled. Reading the poem aloud is like eating a delicious, hearty meal.

The poem sets out to show us something profound about the world. Hopkins called this form a “curtal sonnet,” or a compact sonnet. Rather than 14 lines, it has only 11, but between the first and second stanzas it does contain a “volta,” or turn. The poem shifts direction. Where the first stanza seems to be about the beauty created by variety and diversity, the second stanza celebrates other kinds of “dappled things.” Hopkins praises things that are “counter, original, spare, and strange,” anything that doesn’t quite fit in, something that Hopkins knew about personally, as a man sexually attracted to other men but also deeply committed to his adopted Catholic faith.

My favorite part of the poem is the idea of things being “freckled” by their inconsistency, the way something might be swift one moment and slow the next, or dazzlingly bright one day and dim the next. Our ideal of beauty tends to center on harmony, wholeness, and consistency, but Hopkins’s poem suggests that we live in a world dominated by dissonance, fragmentation, and change. And that’s the point: the world is beautiful not in spite of these imperfections, but because of them. These “dappled things” have been “fathered-forth” by God.

I read this poem and ask myself what it would mean to perceive not only the beauty of God’s counter, original, spare, and strange creations, but also, and most importantly, the beauty of every fickle and freckled human soul.