Synopsis of To What Serves Mortal Beauty

The question of beauty

This extended or alexandrine sonnet is the first of what are sometimes called Hopkins' ‘Last Sonnets', written in Ireland, where he went in 1884. Many of these last sonnets are agonising to read, but this one, written whilst on a religious retreat in August of 1885, shows no sign of the despondency others show. Hopkins is asking a question about human beauty (see also The Windhover re. natural beauty).

Two teachings

Hopkins' own artistic nature made him very aware of beauty, and the teaching of Duns Scotus gave this awareness philosophical grounds. Traditional Christian teaching includes both:

  • that beauty can be a snare
  • that we should gratefully accept all God's gifts.

The poem tries to find a middle way between these two teachings.

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