Friday, November 28, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

Pied Beauty
By Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

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.

We don't have a Thanksgiving holiday in Australia, but can't fail to be aware of its importance in the United States — which may influence the rest of us in the global village to at least spare a thought for things we might be thankful about. So I thought a poem of gratitude would be appropriate today. This one came immediately to mind.

I only just realised, in researching this post, that Hopkins died so young (carried off by typhoid). A Jesuit priest, he felt a conflict between his religious and poetic vocations — on entering the priesthood he burnt his early poems, and later when he began to write again he refrained from publishing so as to avoid the fault of vanity. Luckily for us his old friend, the poet Robert Bridges, published his work posthumously.

Hopkins was a poetic innovator. He is now regarded as ahead of his time and his poetry as a precursor of free verse. He is particularly known for his invention of "sprung rhythm". This is explained in an excellent article at 'By not limiting the number of “slack” or unaccented syllables, Hopkins allowed for more flexibility in his lines and created new acoustic possibilities', and by Wikipedia as, "designed to imitate the rhythm of natural speech".

It is more formal than free verse, however, with non-metric feet beginning with a stressed syllable and having any number unstressed. He sometimes accented certain syllables to show where the stresses fell. In this poem he's only done so twice, on the words "all trades" in the sixth line, and rightly so as otherwise we might not realise he intended both syllables to be stressed. Normally we, who were brought up on free verse, have no problem reading Hopkins, but his work must have posed some difficulties in a time when metric verse was considered the only way to write poetry in English.

Wikipedia goes on to say:

Some critics believe he merely coined a name for poems with mixed, irregular feet, like free verse. However, while sprung rhythm allows for an indeterminate number of syllables to a foot, Hopkins was very careful to keep the number of feet he had per line consistent across each individual work, a trait that free verse does not share. Sprung rhythm may be classed as a form of accentual verse, due to its being stress-timed, rather than syllable-timed, and while sprung rhythm did not become a popular literary form, Hopkins's advocacy did assist in a revival of accentual verse more generally.

And further notes:

In addition to developing new rhythmic effects, Hopkins was also very interested in ways of rejuvenating poetic language. He regularly placed familiar words into new and surprising contexts. He also often employed compound and unusual word combinations. As he wrote to in a letter to [Robert] Bridges, “No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness…" Twentieth century poets such as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Charles Wright have enthusiastically turned to his work for its inventiveness and rich aural patterning.

As you can see above, he also liked to play with sound, in such devices as alliteration and assonance.

Finally, it's worth noting that this poem is what he called a "curtal" (i.e. curtailed) sonnet, an abbreviated version of the Petrarchan sonnet, which he worked out to a mathematical formula. He was nothing if not inventive!

All in all, his experiments make for arresting poetry. However we want poetry to transcend its craft, and I think Hopkins always succeeds in this with his beautiful word choices and depth of feeling.

You can find more of his poetry at PoemHunter, and there are books galore at his Amazon pages, mostly second-hand — as well as a number in Kindle editions.

I'm thankful to Poets United for giving me the opportunity to immerse myself in Hopkins. It's been a long time, and he is so worth revisiting.

The Wikipedia link on his name, above, gives comprehensive biographical details. I was glad to read that, despite ill health, inner struggles and probable depressive illness, he exclaimed on his deathbed,

"I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life."


  1. Really enjoyed the poem, Rosemary. All these 'dappled things ' at first look so innocent have deeper meaning, but for eyes - nice contrast and for ears - know I will read more, and by the way....I always hear it in my ~ thanks for the new

    1. Hopkins was at pains to make us hear it his way — but I find, as I said, that for contemporary readers that comes fairly naturally.

  2. I love Hopkins first for the ways he knows God, then the sound and sense. He absolutely thrills me. His last words (which I didn't know before) seem perfect for that joy!

    1. I particularly love the phrase, 'whose beauty is past change' — the point made so emphatically by indicating the variety of creation.

  3. Very interesting, Rosemary. It is so good that his work was published after his death and not lost. Thanks for another wonderful offering!

    1. Yes indeed, Sherry! I can't bear to contemplate a world without Hopkins's poetry.

  4. I am so glad he loved his life. it seems, based on his poetic style, that he was a free spirit though he lived a life of self-imposed and church imposed restrictions. Thanks for writing about him today.

    1. Well, I'm not sure, Myrna. He also had a strong ascetic streak when young, so he must at times have experienced conflict. But it's clear from his poetry how much he loved both God and nature. I too am glad he died happy and with love for his life.

  5. Really what an inspiring poem!! Rosemary, I enjoyed that you mentioned that he was ahead of his time; but so sad that during his lifetime he did not feel free to publish his own poetry because of his religious vocation!

    1. Yet he entrusted it to his friend Bridges for safekeeping, so he must have hoped it could be published eventually, as indeed it was.

  6. Makes me hungry for more of his work. Thanks for the spotlight on Hopkins.

  7. I have loved this poem since I don't know how long, since I was in high school I think. And my departure from the latter was fifty years ago last July. This poem is also there in one or two of my old poetry books. Thank you so much for reminding me Rosemary.


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