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"Praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD from the heavens,
Praise him in the heights above."
That's not Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it sounds a little like "Pied Beauty," doesn't it? The quote comes from the Book of Psalms in the Bible. It's a "hymn to creation," just like "Pied Beauty." The Psalms inspired this genre, which makes a very simple argument: the world is great and amazing, so God must be too. Some of Hopkins's best poetry celebrates the creations of nature in all their quirky majesty. For example, check out "God's Grandeur," which you can also read about on Shmoop.
Hopkins wrote "Pied Beauty" in 1877, the same year that he was ordained as a Jesuit priest. He is known today as one of the great innovators of English poetry, and particularly for his use of "sprung rhythm." (We'll explain more about "sprung rhythm" in "Form and Meter.")
Hopkins was born in England and lived during the reign of Queen Victoria, often called the Victorian period. His poems are beloved by people of all stripes and "stipples" (pun!) who think that oddness makes the world that much more praise-worthy.
With only a few exceptions, Hopkins did not publish his poetry during his lifetime. The first collection of his work, including this poem, became available to the public in 1918, almost thirty years after his death.
In the history of artists who praise nature, Gerard Manley Hopkins stands out from the crowd. There are two conventional approaches to appreciating nature. The first is to be so bowled over that you can't say anything at all: "Did you see that sunset!? Like…I can't…it's so….wow!" The second is to appreciate nature only insofar as it seems like a nice, organized system: "I love trees that are symmetrical and evenly spaced, waterfalls that fit perfectly on the mountainside, and even the way a snail's shell makes a perfect spiral."
Hopkins takes a different approach. He eloquently loves nature for its quirks, the way you might love someone for his or her big ears. Many writers who glorify nature try to make the world more orderly and manageable than it really is. Rather than ignoring the off-kilter parts of reality, Hopkins zooms right in on them. He would walk into your house and say something like, "Hey, I love how your picture looks a little crooked. Nice work." And you would wonder if he were kidding. But you would soon realize that, no, he is not.
Much of "Pied Beauty" focuses on spots, dots, and speckles in particular. These are the "pied" things from the title. We typically think of spots as our enemy. We have spot removers for our clothes, and when we clean a room really well we call it "spotless." For Hopkins, "spotless" would be a sad state – if it were possible. Fortunately, the word is an exaggeration – a figure of speech. For just when you think you have every last speck of dust cleaned from a room, a ray of sunlight will suddenly come down through the window, lighting up all the tiny floating specks in the air, and you'll be frozen with wonder. You might even say to yourself, "Hey, I could write a poem about this."
An Irish folk singer adapts Hopkins's poems into songs. You can listen to a demo of "Pied Beauty."
A selection of Hopkins's poetry read aloud, including "Pied Beauty."
A painting by the Frenchman Georges Seurat – a master of the pointillist technique – that we think Hopkins would have liked.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
A photo of Hopkins in 1888, a year before his death, wearing the collar of a Jesuit priest.
A beautiful photo of a sky in "couple-colour."
Preface to Hopkins's Work
In the Preface to his (posthumously) published poems, Hopkins explains "Sprung Rhythm." We think that reading his poems is still the best way to understand it.
Hopkins's Poetics of Speech Sound: Sprung Rhythm, Lettering, Inscape
A study of Hopkins focusing on his use of sound. Hopkins believed that "sprung rhythm" mimicked the way that people actually speak in daily conversation.
Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
A recent biography of the poet, focusing on his Catholicism and his relationship with his father.
The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation provides a biography of Hopkins, a good selection of poems, and suggestions for further scholarly reading.
Gerard Manley Hopkins Literary Festival
The Hopkins literary festival is apparently "the best literary festival in Ireland," according to this website devoted to the festival. That's saying a lot for Ireland, a country that loves its literary festivals. Chew on that, James Joyce.
The Victorian Web
You can find Hopkins on the Victorian Web, a site devoted to British writers during the reign of Queen Victoria.