Is this a poem or a prayer?
A bit of both. Hopkins is praising God for creating things that are not usually praised. It is a bit like the song All Things Bright and Beautiful. Things that are perfect or flawless tend to get a lot of attention, but Hopkins seems to think everything that God has created is deserving of praise.
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 all trades, 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:
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Hopkins seems to have been quite a boring chap and by that I mean that most of his life was dominated by his faith. I’m not being one of those militant atheists, but as an English teacher I always enjoy learning about poets because they have ridiculous lives full of drug taking, debauchery and suicide; Hopkins doesn’t get involved in any of that and therefore I consider him a bit dull.
During his youth his parents relocated to be away from the increasingly industrialised town he’d been born in and he came to share their belief that being close to nature was godly and healthy, which inspired their move. He was always interested in religion and explored several different Christian groups and their individual beliefs before deciding to convert to Catholicism and become a priest.
After training to be a priest he wanted to focus on it, but the Church was keen for him to continue writing religious poetry and this poem was a result of that encouragement.
Two biggies: religion and nature.
Most of the poem explore the beauty of unconventional elements of nature, but all this appreciation is being addressed to God as the creator of it all.
Okay, so this one is lovely and short.
The opening addresses adoration to God, specifically for things that are imperfect. All the adjectives and animals in lines 2-4 (cows, fish, nuts* and birds) are praised for not being of one colour, being spotty or a patchwork of colours.
The next couple of lines hold the same sentiment, but now focus on some man made things. Farm land divided into different crops like a patchwork across the English countryside even today remains a very pretty thing to see, particularly from the sky.
Then Hopkins sums up his message in three lines; he is praising everything that is everything imperfect, original and unique and then he broadens it up to include pretty much everything by praising contradictory or opposite ideas – fast and slow, light and dark, etc.
Finally we return to the start by praising God. Hopkins says that everything is wonderful because obviously God couldn’t make mistake… or could he? No! Not according to Hopkins, who then orders us to praise him.
*I am aware that nuts are not animals.
It is important that you point out the semantic field (it’s okay if you don’t use the term) of words that represent imperfection. ‘Dappled’ = spotty; ‘couple-colour’ = two colours; ‘brinded’ = streaky or spotty; ‘rose-moles’ = little spots or freckles; ‘plotted’ = means different crops in adjoining fields. It is unusual that these things are being praised as normally we praise perfection or purity: a girl’s complexion, a horse’s coat or even a pure blue sky or sea (terrible examples, I know, but you get my point). Spots are usually seen as imperfections.
I’d also explore the beautiful metaphor on the fourth line. It is a bit of imagery quite particular to England so let me explain it in detail. ‘Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls’ – a chestnut is a large nut that is mostly a shiny brown colour, but has a duller brown spot as well. They are also knowns as conkers and if you ever get a chance to play a game of conkers, do it! Anyway, back to the analysis. These nuts are eaten, generally at Christmas time, by roasting them in an open fire. Once they are split open the contents are pure white yumminess. This metaphor is possibly the clearest idea of what Hopkins is trying to get across – outer flaws in appearance, or perceived flaws, can hide deeper, spiritual purity and beauty created by God.
Potentially mention the list of opposites to show that Hopkins is really praising every element of God’s world. However, definitely talk about his list ‘counter, original, spare, strange’ to show that he is making a point of emphasising the beauty of individuality and not just of a world of uniformity and order – perhaps a way to compare this poem with something like The City Planners or The Planners.
Notice the amount of punctuation in this poem: there’s loads!
Virtually every line has a caesura or two after the opening three. However, the rhythm is irregular, what is called sprung rhythm, thanks to the punctuation and the fluctuation in terms of the syllables in each line. Why? Well, it helps reflect the message of this poem; we are praising imperfection and the lack of uniformity.
Also the pauses throughout are necessary because Hopkins is providing us with a list of all the things he wants us to appreciate. The pauses between each item force us to contemplate them and thus put us in a position to praise them or think about why they are praiseworthy.
The other thing that you absolutely have to mention is the similarity to a prayer. We start with giving ‘Glory be to God’ and we end by ‘Prais[ing] him’. This reflects Hopkins background as a priest and tells the reader/listener that every element of the world starts and ends with God and faith and we should never forget it.
Appreciative. I imagine Hopkins sitting, glazed eyes, staring out into the world and really enjoying every feature of the world and thinking how lucky he is to be alive.