The Art of the Sonnet ~ G.M. 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 one of my favorite poems - so I begin with it.  Please read As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame below - and the amazing essay by Stephen Burt from the new book he co-wrote with David Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bells
Bow strung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Below is an essay from my favorite book of the year ~ The Art of the Sonnet by Stephen Burt and David Makics, published by Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Hopkins, an English Roman Catholic and a Jesuit priest for almost all of his brief adult life, here explains with a brace of examples how his vividly patterned poetry, and his eye for the details of the created world, drew on his Catholic beliefs. That argument begins from notions Hopkins found in his favorite theologian, the medieval English thinker John Duns Scotus. According to Scotus, every thing -- animal, vegetable, or mineral -- in God's creation has its own essence, its haareitas or "thisness," put there by the Creator. We can come closer to God, and know more of Him, as we know more about -- and as we admire -- the visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic properties of the animals, plants, and objects in God's creation. Hopkins called the unique spark, the God-given energy, in each created thing its instress; he called the impression it makes on our senses (once we look at it closely enough) its inscape. To watch a bird, or a flower, or a stone, attentively and generously enough is to discover its inscape, and then to contemplate the inner energy, the unique spirit, that made that inscape possible -- a spirit put there, of course, by God.

To study the Creation closely enough, to attend to inscape and instress, is thus to pay homage to its Creator, and that is what Hopkins's descriptive language does; in this sonnet he also explains why he does so, how this mode of homage operates. The sonnet thus instructs us in right perception, starting with compact and highly colored examples. Kingfishers "catch fire" and dragonflies "draw flame" because both iridesce when they fly or perch in the sun (the kingfisher is also an emblem of Christ). Because they move so beautifully, with such brightly visible energies, bird and insect make especially good demonstrations of inscape, of divine powers coming to our notice through the creatures in the visible world. Bird and insect reveal their inner uniqueness visually; stones dropped in wells (out of sight) reveal theirs via sound. Each creature, each object, reveals its note, "goes itself," when perceived in action, as a violin string is most truly itself when played (when bowed or plucked). And the divine Creation (unlike a violin) is forever perceived (by God), forever in action, forever harmonious and in tune.

In many of Hopkins's sonnets, as Joseph Phelan says, "the octave sets out the beauty and glory of this world, and the sestet reorients the reader toward ... God": so it is here. Since the octave describes the nonhuman parts of Creation, it omits both morality and theonymy: God and Christ are never named. Created things without consciousness have no choice about how they display their inscape; they can neither reject, nor choose to pursue, the unique qualities that God gave them. Human beings, however, can act in harmony or out of harmony with their essences. To act out of harmony with one's own essence Is to sin, for Hopkins always unlovely. To act in harmony with one's own best essence is to imitate the human being who acted most in harmony with himÂself: Christ, both fully human and fully divine. To act so -- to "justice" (Hopkins makes the noun into a verb, as we might say that the dragonfly of line -dragonflies") is to "keep grace," to show piety and mercy, to be Christ-like. When we do so, as the Son did, the Father is pleased.

The sonnet amounts to an argument, with a general daim (reduced to a proposition, it would be something like "God admires expressions of unique natures, since He put them there") and then two clusters of evidence for that claim, drawn from nonhuman and then from human life. It also revels in details, and in local aural effects. The first four lines include no agents capable of human speech, and what satisfies there consists mostly in imitative and intricate sound: flares of alliteration and chiasmatic (A-B-B-A) patterns of consonance ("fire," "dragonflies," "draw," "flame") introduce further alliteration ("rim," "roundy") and then a riot of internal rhyme ("ring," 'string" "tells," "bell's," "swung," "tongue," "fling," "thing," "thing," "dwell," the "sell" in "self" and "selves").

These intense, infolded aural patterns abate as the octave draws to its close, throwing emphasis less on sound and more upon semantic nuance. "Each mortal thing" speaks for itself, explaining that by acting according to its unique nature, it acts out God's purpose on earth (Hopkins here adapts Scotian theology). Dragonflies fly and iridesce -- at least, they do when they are most fully dragonfly-like; just men (human beings) act justly -- at least, they do when they are most true to their best natures, most Christ-like. The sestet thus depends not only on aural effects, but also on the changing meanings of its repeated words: "just," "grace," "lovely," "eyes." "Goings" means actions (what we do as we move through the world), but also motions (how we stride or stroll from place to place). Had the poem ended at line ten, the conjunction of these two meanings would imply that people who act mercifully have better carriage or posture, that beautiful people are morally better than physically unattractive ones, and that to be gracious is to be graceful too. Though Plato implied as much, such an equation of mercy with elegance, graciousness with gracefulness, for modern human beings might seem improbable -- as improbable, perhaps, as Hopkins's analogy between "justicing" and the sparkling glide of a dragonfly.

We know that beautiful people can be cruel, that ugly and disfigured people can be kind: if we ask only about our own notions of beauty, Hopkins's sestet may seem false to experience. If we ask instead what looks beautiful, graceful, to God, "in God's eye," Hopkins's equations make much more sense. God watches us even more attentively than the best human observer can watch a dragonfly. Watching us, God the Father looks for Christ's nature, the Nature of his Son, which is beautiful to Him, just as we look for dragonfly essence in dragonflies, which are beautiful to us. When God sees people who love and imitate Christ, who partake of Christ's nature, God therefore finds them "lovely," whether or not we find them attractive. Since the poem has to do with notions of beauty, with what seems "lovely" to whom and why, Hopkins does not address sin (which required grace in the first place): he shows, as it were, the Creation on a good day, when the relation of the divine to the human works as it should. The introduction of Christ (twice) at line 12 also replaces justice with mercy, the old dispensation with the new. As if to celebrate that new dispensation, Hopkins can end with virtuosic, almost nonstop alliteration: "plays"-"places," "ten"-"thousand," "lovely"-"limbs"-"lovely," "father"- "features"-"faces." The last line also climbs out of what, by Hopkins's standards, has been a nearly regular meter: triple feet (anapests) and a triplet of prepositional clauses ("to the . . . through the ... of . . .") drive the emphatic twelve-syllable close.

Hopkins made almost no effort to publish his poems, whose idiosyncratic language and at times unorthodox theology might have displeased his Jesuit superiors; they survived because he sent them in letters to literary friends, such as the Anglican clergyman R. W. Dixon and the future poet laureate Robert Bridges. Hopkins wrote to Bridges during the late 18705, the same years in which he likely wrote this poem: "No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.. .. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling Inscape' is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer." Not only does Hopkins's sonnet explain instress and inscape, finding in each creature's being (including our own human natures) evidence of God's presence; the poem also defends Hopkins's search for goodness and beauty, not only in doctrinal universals, but in the particular physical and moral quality, the timbre or luster or style, unique to each part of the created world.


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