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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In Hopkins’s poetry it is virtually impossible to separate device and form from meaning since he is constantly at work molding lines, words, and sounds to create an intricate pattern, making one feel that the poem one is reading is nearly a synesthetic version of the aspect of creation or theology on which he is commenting. Thus this analysis of theme may seem somewhat repetitive of comment on forms and devices. In effect, that is part of the point of the poem.

“Pied Beauty” is essentially a list reminding us again and again, in a variety of ways, that the visible universe and human creation is varied and beautiful even in its ugliness and contrast, and all is a hymn of praise to God the Creator. In this list, Hopkins isolates details that reveal his perceptiveness as a poet and that invite the reader to see the world and word anew and more carefully. Thus the strategy of the poem’s first part is that of enumerating unique details conveyed in unusual words, such as “stipple” or “brinded.” Each detail is like the brush stroke of a great painter, and for Hopkins, God is the careful painter mixing and matching, putting all into a whole. Though individual details are striking, unusual, unique, or even initially ugly, the overall effect is one of massive pattern, reiterated by the echo of the word “all” at the end of one stanza and beginning of the next.

God’s Creation is beautiful because the seeming variety and contrast conceals a principle of unity that links all living things to one another and to God—sky to earth, fish to cow, the dying embers of a fire to the fall of a chestnut from a tree. Though most of the first examples come from nature, and even the first human examples of pied beauty are from agriculture, Hopkins finds beauty also in mercantile work—in all the trades, often despised by other religious writers for being nonspiritual, and even in the equipment used in trade. Perhaps one can also see that the “tackle” used to catch the trout is as beautiful as the trout itself—and beautiful by contrast.

In Hopkins’s vision, God is the creator of beauty, traditionally the father, the divine spark. He is “past change” in that he is eternal, omniscient, a fixed and absolute entity. He encompasses the variegated creation simply as mention of him both begins and ends the poem.

Hopkins remarks upon this beauty, announces it, embodies it in the intricate interwoven complexity of his words, but he does not purport to understand it. The mystery of how the variegation occurs and how or why it is beautiful is announced in the very conversational, almost nonpoetic “who knows how?”—a rhetorical question of amazing power and honesty.

“Pied Beauty” is an ironic paean to God for not creating a perfect universe, but for creating one that is beautiful because of apparent imperfection. The odd locutions and abrupt stuntedness of the poem itself embody the pied quality Hopkins discerns in the external world.


(Poetry for Students)

Nature’s Variety and God’s Unity

“Pied Beauty” is a hymn of praise to the variety of God’s creation, which is contrasted with the unity and non-changing nature of God. This variety is embodied in the “dappled things” of nature, as detailed in the sestet of the curtal sonnet. The significance of these things lies in the union of contrasting or opposite qualities in one being or aspect of creation. Thus bi-colored skies and streaked cows display contrasting hues; the “rose-moles” on the trout stand out against the background color of the skin; finches’ wings have bars of contrasting colors; broken-open chestnuts show a bright color inside against their dull-colored outside; and the worked landscape consists of divisions that separate one part from another.

The “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls” seems to open up a moral and personal aspect to the theme of variety. The idea of the broken-open chestnuts revealing a shining hidden glory within symbolically suggests that a humble,...

(The entire section is 1,306 words.)