Beauty and its purpose

Victorian attitudes to beauty

Beauty was a much more important concept in the nineteenth century than it is today. Nowadays, we confine the term to physical appearance or natural scenes, and it is less usual to hear talk of a ‘beautiful mind' or to think philosophically about beauty. However, Hopkins and his fellow Victorians did, including his Oxford tutor, Walter Pater, who wrote an essay on the subject, Aesthetic Poetry.

When Hopkins became a Jesuit priest, he was faced with a dilemma:

  • was he to continue enjoying beauty in whatever form it came, since God had presumably created it
  • or should he see it as a ‘worldly' pleasure and a distraction from genuine religious devotion?

In the three poems listed above, he tries to find an answer.

Hurrahing in Harvest

Hurrahing in Harvest gives the easiest answer. The question is asked in the second quatrain, and the answer given in the sestet. It is that:

the perception of beauty in nature will so delight the observer that he will naturally turn to God as Creator.

This is quite in line with the Greek philosopher Plato, as well as Duns Scotus, Hopkins' medieval influence. They stated that the love of created things through the senses will lead to a love of the Creator through the spirit. In Ignatian terms, this often comes suddenly in a moment of ‘infused contemplation'. The Romantic poets talked also of sudden moments of perception.

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo

In The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, Hopkins is thinking more in terms of human beauty. In traditional Christian thinking, female beauty has been viewed with some suspicion as being likely to lead men astray.

The answer for Hopkins is:

for the beautiful person to give their beauty back to God, since inner beauty is in the long term much more important.

The surrender of the outward will lead to the development of the inward. This is in line with the Bible verse:

‘(Wives) .. your beauty ... should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit' (1 Peter 3:4)

This is what Hopkins believes to have happened with St. Winifred.

To What Serves Mortal Beauty?

In To What Serves Mortal Beauty? a compromise is reached:

appreciate ‘mortal' or outward beauty by all means, but then leave it. There are more important beauties to pursue.

Here again, Hopkins is thinking of human beauty rather than that of nature. God's ‘better beauty' is grace, which ties in with Peter's ‘gentle and quiet spirit'. So Hopkins at no point denies beauty or even attacks it, but ultimately, when it is expressed in human form anyway, he prefers to turn away from it.

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