Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


According to Hopkins’s theory of inscape, all living things have a constantly shifting design or pattern that gives each object a unique identity. Hopkins frequently uses color to describe these inscapes. “Pied Beauty” praises God for giving every object a distinct visual pattern, from sunlight as multicolored as a cow to the beauty of birds’ wings and freshly plowed fields. Indeed, the word pied means “having splotches of two or more colors.” In “Hurrahing in Harvest,” the speaker describes “azourous hung hills” (9) that are “very-violet-sweet” (10). Elsewhere, the use of color to describe nature becomes more complicated, as in “Spring.” Rather than just call the birds’ eggs “blue,” the speaker describes them as resembling pieces of the sky and thus demonstrates the interlocking order of objects in the natural world. In “The Windhover,” the speaker yokes adjectives to convey the peculiar, precise beauty of the bird in flight—and to convey the idea that nature’s colors are so magnificent that they require new combinations of words in order to be imagined.

Ecstatic, Transcendent Moments

Many of Hopkins’s poems feature an ecstatic outcry, a moment at which the speaker expresses his transcendence of the real world into the spiritual world. The words ah, o, and oh usually signal the point at which the poem moves from a description of nature’s beauty to an overt expression of religious sentiment. “Binsey Poplars” (1879), a poem about the destruction of a forest, begins with a description of the downed trees but switches dramatically to a lamentation about the human role in the devastation; Hopkins signals the switch by not only beginning a new stanza but also by beginning the line with “O” (9). Hopkins also uses exclamation points and appositives to articulate ecstasy: in “Carrion Comfort,” the speaker concludes with two cries to Christ, one enclosed in parentheses and punctuated with an exclamation point and the other punctuated with a period. The words and the punctuation alert the reader to the instant at which the poem shifts from secular concerns to religious feeling.

Read about the similar motif of reveries in the poetry of John Keats.

Bold Musicality

To express inscape and instress, Hopkins experimented with rhythm and sound to create sprung rhythm, a distinct musicality that resembles the patterns of natural speech in English. The flexible meter allowed Hopkins to convey the fast, swooping falcon in “The Windhover” and the slow movement of heavy clouds in “Hurrahing in Harvest.” To indicate how his lines should be read aloud, Hopkins often marked words with acute accents, as in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” and “Spring and Fall.” Alliteration, or the juxtaposition of similar sounds, links form with content, as in this line from “God’s Grandeur”: “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” (6). In the act of repeating “red,” our mouths make a long, low sound that resembles the languid movements of humans made tired from factory labor. Elsewhere, the alliterative lines become another way of worshiping the divine because the sounds roll and bump together in pleasure. “Spring” begins, “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring— / When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush” (12).

Read about how another poet, Walt Whitman, experiments with rhythm as a motif.