Commentary on To What Serves Mortal Beauty

The danger of beauty

The octave sets out the problem, typical of the traditional petrarchan octave:

  • Mortal, meaning human, beauty is ‘dangerous' (a word Hopkins uses also in The Windhover, where it is applied to Christ's beauty)
  • In medieval times, the word meant ‘ownership, power and control' so beauty is powerful and controlling
  • To religious people, it could be dangerous in the modern sense, too, since it could lead beholders astray, either through vanity or infatuation.

Can beauty be good?

The artist's desire is to try to ‘seal' beauty, capture it in a painting or poem.

More on capturing beauty: How to capture beauty is what the Romantic poet, John Keats, discusses in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn'.
  • To a celibate man, like Hopkins, the sight of beauty, as in a pretty woman dancing, could well be distracting (and not just to celibates!)
  • If such a beautiful person is gazed on ‘out of countenance', the desired person merely becomes an object
  • However, if beauty is just glanced at then some real good could come, some desire which has a moral sense to it

Beauty can save

In the last three lines, Hopkins goes on to give the example of Gregory, one of the leadersof the church in Rome, who saw two English boys being sold as slaves. He was so struck by their beauty, he enquired where they had come from. Eventually, this led to the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, to England, and the evangelisation of much of southern England (hence the story of the pun on ‘Angles' (English) and ‘angels').


In the sestet, Hopkins tries to bring a solution:

  • Outer beauty can truly reveal an inner beauty
  • Even better is to see that all humans are beautiful, and we can get glimpses of their inner beauty
  • So don't reject outer beauty, but don't make too much of it, either
  • The best thing of all is to wish for that other beauty, the grace of God.
Investigating To What Serves Mortal Beauty
  • Do you agree that beauty can be ‘controlling' or destructive if ‘gazed out of countenance'?
    • Are you suspicious of human beauty, or do you enjoy it?
      • What good can you see coming from human beauty?
  • Have you ever been able to see beauty in someone, even though at first glance, they seem rather plain, or even ugly?
    • How have you been able to see it?
  • Gather together the words that are linked to beauty in the sonnet.
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