Dappled Things and Patterned Things

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-fire-coal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And álltrádes, 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.
The above poem, Pied Beauty, is Hopkins’ great encomium to the irregular patterns and colours seen in nature, and – as most people with more than a passing acquaintance with his poetry are aware –for him, the beauty of nature is a gift from God. One could argue, at least half-seriously, that the Reformation gave England one of its greatest nature poets: since the great architecture and craft of old Catholic England had been snaffled by the Anglicans, Catholics like Hopkins had instead to seek out beauty, meaning and the glory of God in the great outdoors.
The word “pied” does not denote a particular pattern, rather any pattern in which there are two or more colours, and it is clear that Hopkins means patterns that are very definitely irregular: in the second stanza, Hopkins defines “pied beauty” as things “counter, original, spare, strange”. Herein lies an apparent contradiction, however, for Hopkins’ very praise of this irregular sort of beauty lies within a tightly organized, formal poem. Hopkins took the Petrarchan sonnet (sometimes called the Italian sonnet), and reduced it by exactly one quarter. Thus, the initial eight lines of the Petrarchan sonnet become six, and the last six lines become four and a half, to make the ten and a half lines of his “curtal sonnet”. Why he only ever wrote three of them, I can’t guess, for the effect is a sort of zingier, zennier epiphany than the Petrarchan sonnet or the more ponderous Spenserian sonnet. But there is nothing irregular at all about it – the rhyme scheme is as organized as its Petrarchan forebear, and the form was devised with mathematical precision – he even wrote a formula to explain it.
The rhythm of the poem certainly is strange and original, written as it is according to the principals of Hopkins’ own “sprung rhythm.” We needn’t go into the intricacies of “sprung rhythm” here (and in any case, I am not sure I am qualified), but it suffices to say, first, that it is more varied in its stresses than the more regularly spaced stresses of most formal verse – the tetum-tetum-tetum-tetum-tetum of iambic pentameter, for example; second, according to Hopkins, it more accurately captures the rhythm of natural English speech. There is a preponderance of spondees– stressed syllables twinned to each other, sometimes several in a row, like blows falling in quick succession, as in the line With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. The line seems to pull at the tongue that reads it and the ear that hears it. However natural Hopkins supposed it to be, the aural effect, to those used to the more regular rhythm, is, well, original and strange.
The crowning effect, the great dappling of Hopkins’ poetry, however, lies in his frequent and sustained use of alliteration. An alliteration is a tool used sparingly by many poets, often with a prettifying effect, sometimes for comic effect, but this was not always so. In fact, alliteration has been around for a lot longer than rhyme in English poetry, and if you go back to the very oldest English poetry – that of the Anglo-Saxons, it is the predominant effect, its use heavily formalised. Here is a passage from Beowulf, describing the monster Grendel:
Wihtunhælo,                                       Wight unhallowed
grimondgrædig, gearosonawæs,             Grim and greedy, grasping heads,
reocondreþe, ond on ræstegenam          Wrath and reckless, from beds of rest
þritigþegna, þanon eft gewat                   of thirty thanes, and thence fled
huðehremig to ham faran,                   Proudly in plunder, home`ward repaired
midþærewælfyllewicaneosan.                 And with spoils of slaughter,                                                                                                                        sought he his lair.
Just like Hopkins’ verse, this seems to pull on the tongue somehow. Yet the alliteration provides not just an aural, or oral, effect, but the structural underpinning of the line. Traditionally, each line has three stressed syllables that use the same consonant sound, and one syllable with a different consonant sound. By Chaucer’s time, this technique had disappeared from the south of the country, replaced by rhyme brought over from the continent; but it held out in a few northern and western redoubts, and can be seen in full flow in the long poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For a point of comparison with Hopkins, here is one of the more pastoral passages in the anonymous poem, describing the change from winter to spring:
Botþenneþeweder of þeworldewythwynter hit þrepez,
Coldeclengezadoun, cloudezvplyften,
Schyreschedezþerayn in schowrezfulwarme,
Fallezvpon fayre flat, flowrezþereschewen,
Boþegroundez and þegreuezgrenear her wedez

(Approximately: but then the weather of the world with winter battles/cold clings down, clouds uplift / bright falls the rain in showers full warm / falling upon fair fields, flowers there showing / both ground and the grass in green garments)
When the Gawain poet, as here, experiments with the Old English alliterative formula, it is to add more alliteration, not less. The effect is as striking and muscular as in Hopkins’ poetry, but much more regular– we might say repetitive. Perhaps this technique was more suited to Old English than to Middle English – the poet of Gawain was a virtuoso, no doubt, but critics agree that he often stretches for an unusual, obscure or sometimes barely appropriate word to keep the line alliterative. The technique may be barely possible in modern English – in the English poet Simon Armitage’s recent rendition, the poet-translator is pragmatic: he uses alliteration where he can and where it works, and sometimes uses a fully alliterative line as in the original, but on the whole prefers words that are appropriate, even if only approximately alliterative. He renders the above passage:
Then the world’s weather wages war on winter:
Cold shrinks earthwards and clouds climb;
Sun-warmed, shimmering rain comes showering
Onto meadows and fields where flowers unfurl,
And woods and grounds wear a wardrobe of green.
For Hopkins, the structure of the poem is provided by the rhyme scheme of the curtal sonnet, but the alliteration is the very essence of the poem – providing its dappling, its “couple-colour.” The alliteration is irregularly spaced and sometimes inexact. But in tandem with the compressive effects of sprung rhythm, it provides the poem with some startling blasts of aural beauty – my favourite: Fresh-fire coal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings. Actually, when you look closely at that line, it almost follows the very same pattern of alliteration as Gawain and the Green Knight: Hopkins, a great innovator in English poetry, always claimed he was rather discovering and defining patterns in English poetry rather than inventing them. The glory of God, too, he saw in the chance beauty we find in nature, rather than in the more regularised patterns in works of man; the poet’s job was to capture and transmit, rather than create, this beauty.
Gerald Manley Hopkin’s work is in the Public Domain
The translation of Beowulf is my own, but I was assisted by the MIT version, here  http://www.mit.edu/~jrising/webres/beowulf.pdf
The extract of Simon Armitage’s Gawain is from “Fitt 2” of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, London 2007