“Pied Beauty” is a rhymed “curtal” (shortened) sonnet divided into two stanzas, consisting of three full tercets and a truncated fourth. The title refers to the variegated beauty of the world that first may appear ugly or chaotic. Though “pied” suggests at least two tones or colors, it also suggests a blotched or botched effect, as when in an earlier era, a printer spilled a galley of set type, creating a printer’s “pie.”
Though traditional sonnets are fourteen lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his experiments with poetic form, line, and meter, altered the shape of the sonnet. In the case of “Pied Beauty,” he “curtailed” or shortened the sonnet’s traditional fourteen lines to eleven; in some other cases, he lengthened the form and wrote sonnets “with codas,” or tails.
The poem celebrates God for the beauty in a varied creation. Hopkins, a devout Jesuit priest, isolates a number of instances of this “pied” or dappled beauty in the first stanza (lines 1-6). He finds it in two-toned skies as well as on cows, on spotted trout, and on the wings of birds. He also sees variety and unity in the contrasts between all these life-forms, for he sees echoes of plants on fish—“rose-molesupon trout,” echoes of the dying embers of fires in the chestnuts falling from the tree.
In fact, the first stanza catalogs God’s infinite variety in creation in instances that symbolize all life as well as inanimate forms, from the heavens to the seas, from plants to animals, from animals finally even to humans. The fifth line observes the pied quality of the landscape as humans have altered it. The landscape is a pied checkerboard with pens for animals (such as sheepfolds), plowed fields, and those fields lying unplowed (fallow). The human pied effect on land is then juxtaposed against the variety of human mercantile activity or trades.
As in most sonnets, the second part or stanza generalizes, summarizes, or abstracts from the particular details observed by the poet in the first part. Therefore, the next three lines (lines 7-9) point out the general patterns of contrast. The word “counter” suggests this contrariness: The beauty of God’s creation grows out of oppositions. Many of the adjectives—such as “fickle”—Hopkins uses to describe the pied beauty may seem in themselves unappealing or ugly. “Fickle” usually connotes unpredictability, disloyalty, perhaps even immorality. In the context of a vast creation, however, these strange, pied qualities are amalgamated to the overall beauty. The ninth line itself reiterates this effect of balanced and beautiful contrast in a series of paired oppositions. Having described the pied beauty of the Creation in the first nine lines, or first three tercets, Hopkins turns to the Creator or “father” (God) in the last two lines and concludes by directing the reader to “Praise him.”
Forms and Devices
Characteristic of Hopkins is his use of a variety of intricate sound devices, each heightened or altered in some untraditional way. Hopkins’s idiosyncratic and innovative techniques perhaps explain why the majority of his poems were published only in the first decades of the twentieth century, nearly thirty years after his death. “Pied Beauty” consists of patterns of such idiosyncracy in its alliteration, assonance, neologism, archaism, end rhyme, and rhythm. All these patterns interconnect and contrast with one another so that the poem itself is an example of “pied” beauty, or mixed elements.
Thus the alliterative g sounds of the first line (“GloryGod”) give way to the l sound, which echoes in “dappled,” “couple,” “colour,” “moles,” and “stipple,” interconnecting the patterns of the first three lines with the entire first stanza. The alliterative pattern of sounds connects the “couple-colour” of the sky to the skin of the “cow.” The c sounds are thus “pied” or combined in contrast with the l sounds.
At first glance, a word such as “rose-moles”...
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