Themes in To What Serves Mortal Beauty

Beauty and its Purpose

In a letter to a fellow poet, Coventry Patmore, Hopkins wrote that he could see three levels of beauty:

  • the beauty of the body, which is both dangerous and fascinating
  • beauty of mind
  • beauty of character, which could be called grace.

Beauty of mind

Hopkins doesn't really talk of beauty of mind in this poem, but may be referring to:

‘Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.' (Philippians 3:8 AV)

Christ's beauty

(See also As Kingfishers Catch Fire) Hopkins describes both God's beauty, and the beauty we are to desire for ourselves or see in others, as the understanding of grace.

  • The term ‘graceful' has become linked to beautiful women or dancers
  • ‘Gracious' is another adjective, which applies more to character
  • God's beauty in terms of grace was seen in Christ, whom Christians believe to be a full manifestation of God in human terms


‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us....full of grace and truth.' (John 1:14 AV)
  • But the grace was not just in actions, but in his being, as John goes on to say:
‘And of his fulness have we all received, and grace for grace, For the law came through Moses, but grace came by Jesus Christ.' (John 1:16-17 AV).
  • ‘grace for grace' suggests a certain reciprocity between man and God, which seems to be Hopkins' idea.

Divine grace

Divine grace is both beautiful in its actions and in its character. The Bible describes it as of love, kindness, mercy and forgiveness:

  • Without this association Hopkins would be in danger of suggesting it is easier to love beautiful or even morally lovely people:

‘Love what are love's worthiest...World's loveliest'

  • The understanding has to be that by God's grace, it is possible for people to love the unlovely.
Investigating To What Serves Mortal Beauty
  • Do you see any other themes?
  • Both ‘love' and ‘beauty' are fairly easy words to get hold of, but ‘grace' isn't (See questions on As Kingfishers Catch Fire for research on grace)
    • Why do you think this is?
      • Does reading Hopkins make it any easier?
  • What is Hopkins saying by ‘To man, that needs would worship...'?
  • Whose law is he referring to in l.10?
    • Is it, for example, a Biblical law, as in ‘love your neighbour as yourself' (Mark 12:31)?
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