To what serves mortal beauty— | dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood—the O-seal-that-so | feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? | See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means—where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.
To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest—men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

“To What Serves Mortal Beauty?” Gerard Manley Hopkins

When is the last time you had to care for something before you saw its beauty? Perhaps you had to water seeds in the soil, nail wooden beams together, or show up on time to work for years before you saw any fruit from your labors. Fairy tales are full of stories of the ugly hag, the frog, the beast, whose unseen qualities are only revealed after they are loved. Apart from the drama of these tales, we experience this phenomenon in our everyday human relationships. We see and know our subject through loving and nurturing. Through our actions, we become witnesses to the divine quality of the object.

To Love Another Person is to See the Face of God

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This line from the musical based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables links loving and seeing. To really love someone is to metaphorically “see” God. But what if we reversed the one seen and the one loved? What if seeing a mortal face would help us love God? In his poem “To What Serves Mortal Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins invites us to consider the telos of mortal beauty. He demonstrates that to look upon mortal beauty, such as the face of a child, ought to attune our souls to reality and bring greater love for the object of beauty and the world. Ultimately, perishable beauty ought to cultivate a desire for and cultivation of immortal beauty.

First, Hopkins characterizes beauty as dangerous, much like the power of fire. We innately know the power of beauty–it can be seductive and manipulative, and thus it’s deployed strategically in many successful marketing schemes. As Hopkins puts it, mortal beauty sets our blood dancing.

What is the purpose of the dancing blood that springs from mortal beauty? Hopkins says that it “keeps warm men’s wits to the things that are; what good means.” The wits of man—his mental sharpness or intelligence—is kept warm, harkening back to the blood that is dancing. In other words, man is more attuned to the way things are because of mortal beauty. But once again, as with his use of “danger,” Hopkins does not want us to think of “the way things are” in a negative manner. Beauty doesn’t drag us down into cynical realism. We know as much because of the beatific visions of Dante’s Beatrice, Dickens’s Lucie, and Boethius’s Lady Philosophy. Beauty, in its fullness, shows us what is real and good–before concealment or corruption.

The high calling of mortal beauty should give us pause with certain modern art or expressions of beauty. An art piece depicting three piles of dirt or the “body positivity” sensation (which frames all visions of objective physical beauty as social constructs) comes from a world that defines beauty by its expression rather than its finished form. In a very true sense, expression or intent animates the physical with beauty, like the thought behind a gift. But the categories of “intent” and “product” must be made distinct at times if we are to tend to the health of each. If looking upon beauty is supposed to show us what is good, we should safeguard what we are looking upon. If we blur the horizon, we handicap a mechanism by which we see clearly.

Mortal beauty both equips and compels us. Beauty acts as a showcase of what is real and good. By it, we know better how to enunciate God’s goodness. In addition, if something is beautiful, we are compelled to love it. English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, “Earth’s crammed with Heaven, and every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes.” Sewn in the fabric of the world is beauty–we have only to recognize and respond accordingly. The response demanded of us is care and reverence for that which enchants us. When we enjoy beauty, we are participating in a cosmic, divine “dance” of beholding and cherishing beauty. We love God by delighting in what he delights in. And when we move in love toward a beautiful person or object, we are loving who that beauty reflects. By casting our eyes on the beautiful, we learn who God is. We then do the act of loving: we tend to the things of God.

First, Hopkins characterizes beauty as dangerous, much like the power of fire. We innately know the power of beauty–it can be seductive and manipulative, and thus it’s deployed strategically in many successful marketing schemes. As Hopkins puts it, mortal beauty sets our blood dancing.


A Catalyst for Higher Love

To demonstrate this movement from the sight of beauty to the act of love, Hopkins draws from the story of Pope Gregory I in the sixth century, who looked upon young boys at a Roman slave market and noticed their fair complexion and blue eyes. Captured by their human beauty, Gregory resolved to bring the most beautiful truth he knew to their people. Gregory would send missionaries to the British Isles, the home of the Anglo-Saxons at that time, to spread Christianity. The catalyst for Gregory’s spiritual investment was mortal beauty. This echoes Plato’s Diotima’s “ladder of love,” where one’s love of “lower” (or finite) forms of beauty draws one to the upper rungs, towards infinite beauty.

Hopkins says the loveliest thing this world has to offer is man himself. Specifically, man’s self is worthiest to love “were all known.” This is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s contention in The Weight of Glory that “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” If human beings were fully known with the value imbued by their creator, we’d know just how worthy they are of love.

Self, Hopkins says, “flashes off frame and face.” By this, he means that the self is revealed in part via body and face. This is not a typical answer—we may think that one’s true self is unseen, i.e., don’t judge a book by its cover. Further reflection on Hopkins’s project clarifies the sentiment. The verb “flashes” reemphasizes the nature of danger and the warmth of beauty. It is also a reminder that the self revealed in the frame and face can be seen at a glance, not necessarily a gaze. The truth of the self flashes off the body and face—the smile, eyes, cheeks, and the way a person carries themselves–the animation of their physical form. All of this rapidly reveals something about who they are. 

This isn’t always true, and the knowledge gained is never complete. But exceptions to the rule don’t negate the rule. A smile can tell us about someone’s personality, a physical build about their soul. The human person was created with a united body and soul. Thus, the material was always meant to teach us something about the immaterial. It is the loveliness of who we are in our spirits that Hopkins thinks is revealed in the easy grin, chiseled jawline, graceful neck, or flowing hair. Unlike an inanimate object, a person’s physical beauty reveals the deeper self. For Hopkins, this cohesive beauty between body and spirit is the very “loveliest.”

Meeting Mortal Beauty

This still raises the question of how we are to approach something so powerful as mortal beauty—a force that transmits reality, drives us to act in heroic, sacrificial ways, and compels us to love another human. Gautama Buddha said: “When you like a flower, you just pluck it. When you love a flower, you water it daily.” The temptation of wanting something beautiful is to pluck it and keep it for yourself. However, the proper response to beauty is to leave it rooted and help it grow where it is. Hopkins is saying something of this sort when he pleads with his reader to “merely meet it.” We can make a home with that beauty and accept it gladly as a heavenly gift, but then we leave and let it alone. Meeting something and then letting it alone draws us back to the idea of a glance. If one gazes, one will see what is lacking. This is because finite humans will always display a limited vision of beauty. They will fail to fully reflect divine, imperishable beauty. Importantly, it is not the judgment or the noticing of the lack that is the offense. Hopkins’s plea to “leave, let that alone” is addressing the recipient of beauty’s instinct to tinker with his goods, beginning to make a list of things to fix. The one tinkering does not accept the reality of the limitations (from corruption or finitude) of the gift.

Maybe we think we are living in an inclusive, accepting world—authenticity and self-expression seem prized above order and conformity. But an aesthetically curated Instagram and Pinterest universe would tell us something different. In the age-old quest to eradicate imperfections, we’ve come to the testing of “designer babies,” or genetically modified children with desirable genes (no more just a concept from Gattaca (1997) or some other dystopian tale). We wander between the extremes of undervaluing and neglecting beauty and overvaluing and controlling beauty, subjecting it to our own will and base desires. The dark side of overvaluing beauty is to seek to manipulate it into our own image, to manage it for ourselves. Hopkins says to leave it alone.

Mortal beauty serves a purpose but is not the purpose. In its finitude, it is meant to be glanced at, not gazed upon. If one tries to treat mortal beauty as immortal beauty it will, like manna, spoil. Ecclesiastes teaches us that knowing that all is vanity helps us see that “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” If we expect every season–such as a crisp fall–to be eternal, we will not fully absorb the beauty of the crunchy leaves and sundry colors. It is only by acknowledging the fleetingness of this life that one can lay hold of its glory.

Beauty Made Greater in Grace

Accepting the limitedness of mortal beauty does not mean we do not wish it could be more. The key word, as Hopkins notes, is “wish.” “Wish” is an essentially passive verb, demonstrating desire while not demanding the result. We wish something for the mortal that only God can provide and orchestrate: his overflowing, infinite grace. It is the grace of God that animates the limbs of Christ in Hopkins’s famous “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” poem. More than the animals, the man acts as Christ by “keep[ing] grace.” Grace, the gift from an immortal God that frees man from all evil and burden, is the better beauty. It animates the spirit and overflows to the physical. Mortal beauty may be used as an instrument to draw us to the truth, but if one truly loves that beauty, one wants that beauty itself to be transformed and perfected, clothed in the animating power of grace.

What if we knew fading beauty may be used to assist in someone’s ascent to divine beauty? How might that cause us to safeguard physical beauty? Just as Pope Gregory I was struck by the appearance of enslaved children, the beauty that we steward—our bodies, the walls of our homes, and the flowers in our gardens—could, and were designed to, pierce human souls and motivate action. Accepting brokenness and imperfection is not the same as pursuing beauty. If everything is beautiful, nothing is. We cannot lose the mechanism by which we see clearly and, as Hopkins says, “keep our wits warm.”

Les Miserables’ famous line, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” is a paraphrase of a verse from Scripture. 1 John 4:12 says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” By practicing love for mortal beauty, we can begin to see God for who he is. And by seeing mortal beauty and handling it properly, Hopkins teaches that we can begin to truly love God. To see and to love, to acknowledge mortal beauty and wish divine beauty for it—this is the work we get to participate in as we live in our mortal sphere. 

Image by Konstiantyn and licensed via Adobe Stock. Image resized.