Pied Beauty Critical Overview
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

With a few exceptions of uncharacteristic poems appearing in minor periodicals, Hopkins’s poems were not published during his lifetime and were read only by friends and fellow poets. Hopkins resisted the entreaties of his friends to publish. His reluctance was probably due to his anticipation of responses such as that of the poet and critic Coventry Patmore after wrestling with a number of Hopkins’s poems. Patmore, cited in Paul L. Mariani’s A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, complained that the poems required “the whole attention to apprehend and digest them.” He added that Hopkins’s poetry was “arduous” enough without the added difficulty of “several entirely novel and simultaneous experiments in versification and construction,” together with an “altogether unprecedented system of alliteration and compound words.”

Patmore was perhaps vindicated in his view by the slow sales of the 1918 publication of the first collected edition of Hopkins’s poems, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Robert Bridges, in which “Pied Beauty” was included. The English poet A. E. Housman gave his opinion of the collection in a letter of 1918 to Robert Bridges, cited in the University of Glasgow website article “Paper 17. Literature 1830–1914 (Victorian).” Housman dismisses Hopkins’s attempts at sprung rhythm as being less competent than “many a humble scribbler of words for music-hall songs” has written. He accuses Hopkins of doing more “violence” to the English language than even the poet John Keats, and of trying to “compensate by strangeness for the lack of pure merit.”

“Pied Beauty” subsequently appeared in the second complete edition of Hopkins’s poetry, published in 1930. This time, popular taste had begun to catch up with Hopkins’s innovative style. The edition met with considerable critical and public acclaim and established Hopkins’s influence on twentieth-century poets. Not everyone was wholly impressed, however. T. S. Eliot (in his 1934 essay “After Strange Gods,” as cited in the University of Glasgow website article “Paper 17. Literature 1830–1914 (Victorian)”) noted that while Hopkins’s innovations were good, “like the mind of their author, they operate only within a narrow range.” Eliot wrote that they sometimes come close to being “purely verbal, in that a whole poem will give us more of the same thing, an accumulation, rather than a real development of thought or feeling.”

Donald Davie, in his 1952 book Purity of Diction in English Verse (cited in the University of Glasgow website article, “Paper 17. Literature 1830–1914 (Victorian)”), lambasts Hopkins for his “self-regarding ingenuity,” which “may be called decadent.” Hopkins, Davie writes, is the greatest poet of a decadent age, “because he cultivates his hysteria and pushes his sickness to the limit.” Part of Hopkins’s decadence, Davie added, lies in...

(The entire section is 689 words.)