Colourful Words

Colourful Words

This week’s poems are about colours.

Oscar Wilde strikes up with a “Symphony in Yellow”, then Walter de la Mare shows us the way colours drain to “Silver” in moonlight and Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that one can see wonders in variegated patterns of colours in “Pied Beauty”.

Poem 112. Symphony in Yellow

And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.

Oscar Wilde (1854—1900)
An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.
Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.
The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the Temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade.

This poem is purely descriptive and gives us a good idea of Victorian London with its pea-souper fogs and the sensation of everything having a yellow tinge—perhaps evidence of Wilde’s jaundiced view of the world.

Wilde makes great use of similes in this poem and each one highlights a different part of the scenery but perhaps my favourite is the Thames “like a rod of rippled jade”, producing a slightly dissonant greenish note against the background of yellow.

There are several sight rhymes in this poem—words that look as if they ought to rhyme but are pronounced differently. This kind of rhyme is often encountered in English poems that were written before a shift in English pronunciation called “The Great Vowel Shift”. Since this poem was written in 1889, it seems that Wilde was employing this form of rhyme deliberately and since he is producing an aesthetic effect rather than a rhythmic one, it seems to work.

Another reason for including this poem is a personal one—one of my ancestors, James Willing, was a prominent advertising contractor in the Victorian period and part of his operations included an omnibus company at one time so I like to think that the “yellow butterfly” is a Willing’s omnibus. James Willing’s omnibus company was absorbed in the 1850s into the London General Omnibus Company which eventually became Transport for London, so it’s just a pipe dream really.

Poem 113. Silver

A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws and silver eye

Walter de la Mare (1873—1956)

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon:
This way, and that, she peers and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

This short poem perfectly captures the way moonlight makes everything seem colourless.

I like the way de la Mare personifies the moon as a woman in silver shoes (shoon) walking at random and conferring a metallic sheen to everything: the fruit on the trees, the paws of the dog in its kennel, the doves in their dove-cote and the wild creatures: the mouse and the fish.

I like this poem for its atmospheric and beautiful descriptions; it reminds me of “The Listeners”, one of the first poems I covered in this series.

Poem 114. Pied Beauty

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844—1889)
Glory be to God for dappled things -
      For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
           For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim:
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
      Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
           And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
      Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
           With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
            Praise him.

This is another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sprung rhythm poems, this time in praise of combinations of colours not in the sense of mixing together, but colours that complement one another and make the object they adorn more beautiful.

Hopkins, being a Jesuit priest, naturally ascribes this beauty to God; be that as it may, the poem shows us these variegated colours.

I imagine “skies of couple-colour” means those wonderful sunsets and sunrises when the sky is a riot of colours but could also be the blue sky interspersed with white clouds. A brinded cow has a pattern of streaks, perhaps like the horse tails of cirrus clouds.

Hopkins then switches through several images that evoke the tremendous variety of colours and patterns to be seen on the sides of trout, horse chestnuts (or conkers as they are better known by British children), the wings of birds, the hues of the landscape in its various phases of agricultural use and the shades of colour associated with the tools of rural trades.

In the second stanza, he attributes all these things and everything that has combinations of colours to the work of God, finishing with the simple exhortation: “Praise him”.

The poem is a riot of alliteration, reflecting the multi-coloured world he so exuberantly describes.