Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled 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 all trades, 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:
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
“What are you majoring in?”
“English: and I’m almost fluent!”
I make this joke with frequency; my questioner usually laughs. Its ridiculousness smacks of truth. The study of literature, merely appreciating language instead of mastering its grammar or strategically implementing it, can feel purposeless. It’s inherently impractical, an exercise in academia that gets society nowhere fast. Studying poems means squinting at sheaves of paper and ink, trying to find a line that’s pretty, funny, or perhaps even “interesting,” text to tidily underline with a nice pen. It is to guess at imagined authorial intent, long-dead thoughts of people you did not know. To study poetry is to obsess with metaphor, to smoke lots of cigarettes, and to sigh over clever rhymes. All of this is good fun, a longstanding source of pleasure for the human race, but all in all (let’s be serious) rather frivolous.
I encountered “Pied Beauty” last fall, clasped in the pages of a green and white anthology. I immediately recognized its beauty; it is a playful thing, quick-witted and high-spirited. As a well-trained student of wordsmithing, I circled the details I liked with a pencil, found the components I might analyze if writing an essay. There’s the obvious alliteration: “glory/God,” “couple-colour,” “fresh-firecoal/falls, finches”: you get the idea. There is the element of list, a building delight in Manley Hopkins’ cleverness; he notes so many things with spots and dots! There are the variously indented lines, the copious punctuation. Why a comma there, a semicolon here? I took joy in my analysis, and I took it for what it was: a quick exercise in noticing beauty, nothing more.
Yet lines of “Pied Beauty” have stayed in my head, affixed themselves in a manner that mere trinkets do not. Now in a new autumn, I return to the text once more, searching for the source of its stickiness. Perhaps I love the sonnet so much because it is a praise poem; its natural images exist to exalt God’s handiwork. As a Christian, I love conceptualizing the world how Manley Hopkins does: as God’s infinite canvas, a blank reel of spooling film. But as an aspiring writer, grappling with vocation, my respect for this poem (and for all poems in general) goes beyond matter and turns itself towards Maker. Manley Hopkins’ wit, his invention, his play, all tell us something about God—what He made us to imagine, and what that says about the Image in which we are made.
God’s glory lives in nature’s excess. A salt wave ribboned with foam, a sapped forest turning red, are not “practical” as we see practicality. Beauty is not necessary to sustenance, to longevity. Yet in God’s calculus, loveliness has a purpose. “The Heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” the Psalmist cries (Ps 19:1, NIV).
God did not need to create spectrum skies, horizons of streaky orange and scattered jewels. He did not need to mesmerize with fire, charm with neatly tapered feathers, or surprise with rose petal fish. And these catalogued treasures are only a small subset of all beautiful things. Manley Hopkins knows that he covers only a portion of nature’s praise, quickly glossing each “swift” squirrel and “slow” whale, “sweet” nectarine and “sour” apple, city lights all “adazzle” and lamplight soft and “dim.” The psalmist, too, is overwhelmed: “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom You made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24-25). All beauty, immutable and unchangeable, comes from God; he “fathers-forth” the world, a loving patron. The details of nature bring praise to God; this is the conceit of “Pied Beauty,” and it is a lovely one. But it is not all I see.
At the beginning of an end, a senior preparing to graduate, I come to this poem with an uneasy mind. Filled with countless questions and one overwhelming conviction (I must write) I detect in “Pied Beauty” something more than lovely landscapes made by a good Father; now, I notice the lovely language of his apprentice son. In Manley Hopkins’ careful marks of punctuation and gentle indents, I see God’s fastidious painting of the trout. In his neologisms, bridged with hyphens (“fresh-firecoal,” “fathers-forth”) I see God’s creative energy, a wellspring of imagination barely dammed behind the stony conventions of language. “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you,” Paul encourages the young Timothy; this sonnet is Manley Hopkins’ fanning, a gift turned to good purposes (2 Tim 1:6). I am encouraged; doing work with words, writing to convey beautiful or frightening truths, does not make me silly. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” says Paul (1 Cor 10:31). With this mandate in mind, how can any task be frivolous?
Alliteration will not turn a profit; delicate punctuation has nothing to do with disease healing or war ending. God’s purposes involve so much more than making pretty things; He grants us each unique giftings and vocations, and some political or medical or financial. But recognizing the beauty lying in the landscapes, streaming from the fingertips of our fellow man, matters so much. It is “past change.” In seeing beautiful things, in delighting in poetry or music or paint, we approach adoration; we come to give credit to God. In making beautiful things ourselves, we become reverent kings and queens, the worshipful creators we were made to be.
I recently attended a service at a nearby Episcopalian monastery. As we entered the sanctuary, the brothers handed each worshipper a ball of russet clay. In the clouds of incense, between the stone walls, I played with the lump, rolling it between my hands, stretching it, starting over again to make a new shape. The homily was a message on the soul of creativity. “Mold it between your hands,” said the brother softly, evening sunlight streaming through the stained glass. I stretched the clay into strands, carved patterns with my fingernail. The brother paused. “Have you ever considered that this may be your prayer?” he asked gently. I began to cry.
Lord, give me the courage to pray my prayer.
Kate Massinger ‘16 is an English concentrator in Kirkland House.