Splotchitiness

Among my many eccentricities, the weirdest one is that I actually think that poetry matters. I believe that it is important. And I think that most people need to read a lot more of it instead of doing whatever it is they are doing. I know that this makes me a crank—and a largely unemployable crank at that–but it’s too late for me. I’ve been to therapy several times for this. I’m not going to change.

But don’t ask me what my favorite poem is, because I don’t know. People like me don’t have favorite poems, or novels, or musical scores—or, more specifically, we have so many that the answer will change every time you ask the question. But there are a few that keep rising to the top for me, mainly because they taught me things I didn’t really understand before.

Even a list of these poems would be long. It would be well populated with poems by Rumi, Rilke, Dickinson, Keats, Auden, and Bishop. But if you averaged my top ten every day for a year, there is a good chance that “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins would end up at or near the top spot. Hopkins taught me about splotchitiness, which is one of the most important things I know about God.

Here’s the poem:

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.

Like most undergraduates, I struggled with this poem the first few times I read it. Hopkins’ sense of meter is challenging enough, but this poem has a lot of words in it that most people don’t know, like “dappled,” “couple-colour,” “brinded,” “stipple,” and, of course, “pied.” I had to look all of these words up, and when I did, I discovered that they all mean basically the same thing: splotchity. Synonyms for “splotchity” might include “irregular,” “unpredictable,” “uneven,” or even “messy.” But none of these work as well as “splotchity.”

For Hopkins, splotchitiness was the same as uniqueness. The natural phenomena that he describes: skies, cows, bird’s wings, trout, landscapes are all unique. Each one has different patterns and configurations of colors that set them apart from every other thing in the universe. This uniqueness is God’s stamp of ownership on all living things. It is how He shows his love, and it is, for Hopkins, the essence of divine beauty.

The opposite of splotchiness is uniformity: factory produced items that all look alike, tract homes in a new subdivision, things that are perfect, uniform, balanced, symmetrical, and even. Such uniformity does not occur in nature; it is the product of human enterprise. Human beings equate beauty with uniformity and go to great lengths to eliminate splotchitiness. This is why we have Photoshop, quality control, and  (heaven help me) correlation.

The great question of “Pied Beauty” is whether we are going to adopt God’s standard of beauty, which is splotchity, or humanity’s standard, which is uniform. This is an interesting aesthetic question, but it is an even more important religious one—especially if one is in the business of building Zion, whose famous tag line, “people of one heart and mind,” doesn’t sound splotchity at all.

But let’s follow Hopkins through to the end. If God stamps each person with a uniqueness that signals his love, then those who follow God have a responsibility, not merely to tolerate what makes people unique, but to glory in its divinity. This means outward shape, size and color, but God’s stamp goes deeper than that. It includes personality traits, beliefs, values, life experiences, and, yes, even sexualities and ways of understanding the Gospel. We are unique, and therefore splotchity, in many different ways, all of them divine.

All of these things come ultimately from God, and the mix that they produce is pied, stipple, brinded, dappled, and, well, splotchity. That is what beautiful looks like to God.

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    YES.

  2. Wabi-Sabi

  3. Not quite the same idea but related, my best friend said, “Clearly God loves variety.” Clearly. As you note, one serious question is whether we can come to love it too. Thanks for the post.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    I love this one from Rilke.

    I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all
    my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life;
    as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small
    and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.

    The wondrous game that power plays with Things
    is to move in such submission through the world:
    groping in roots and growing thick in trunks
    and in treetops like a rising from the dead.

  5. Ever since I heard it set to music at a choral concert, one of my favorites has been “The Old Church” by Della B. Vik.

    The old church leans nearby a well-worn road
    Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
    The winds from off the prairie now unload
    The dust they bring around it fitfully.
    The path that leads up to the open door
    Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
    Of us who listen to the Bible lore
    And once again the old-time hymns repeat.
    And every Sabbath morning we are still
    Returning to the altar waiting there.
    A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
    The Master’s House with a triumphant air.
    The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
    But it is beautiful to us, and God.

    It’s beautiful to listen to, you can find a recording at:

  6. I really like Hopkins, so thanks for this today. I don’t think I really understood poetry as well when I had to take a course or two in college for my major, but revisiting some of those poems is a whole lot different these days.

    Indulge me for a moment. Tennyson’s Ulysses is now a favorite, but this one from Marguerite Stewart is close to my heart these days:

    When I went to the door, at the whisper of knocking,
    I saw Simeon Gantner’s daughter, Kathleen, standing
    There, in her shawl and her shame, sent to ask
    “Forgiveness Flour” for her bread. “Forgiveness Flour,”
    We call it in our corner. If one has erred, one
    Is sent to ask for flour of his neighbors. If they loan it
    To him, that means he can stay, but if they refuse, he had
    Best take himself off. I looked at Kathleen . . .
    What a jewel of a daughter, though not much like her
    Father, more’s the pity. “I’ll give you flour,” I
    Said, and went to measure it. Measuring was the rub.
    If I gave too much, neighbors would think I made sin
    Easy, but if I gave too little, they would label me
    “Close.” While I stood measuring, Joel, my husband
    Came in from the mill, a great bag of flour on his
    Shoulder, and seeing her there, shrinking in the
    Doorway, he tossed the bag at her feet. “Here, take
    All of it.” And so she had flour for many loaves,
    While I stood measuring.
    [Marguerite Stewart, “Forgiveness Flour,” Religious Studies Center Newsletter 7, no. 3 (May 1993): 1]

  7. Hopkins is pretty good.

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    Michael, this is a great post. But I think we need to be careful about drawing “God’s standard of beauty, which is splotchity” to be universally true. There is incredible beauty and elegance in much of the math and physical laws that undergird His universe. There is room for both the regular and the splotchity in the wondrous variety of creation.

  9. Biology is pretty much all splotchiness. Mutations can lead to new populations, and even new species. A lack of splotchiness is a world of clones–life that is highly susceptible to disease and other problems, and ultimately leads to extinction. Biology is splotchy, so therefore life is splotchy.

  10. What strikes me about this poem is that except for the first four and final two words, Hopkins describes, and glories in, the world, not God. Hopkins perceived the world as God-infused and could not see divinity and the world as separate things.

  11. Melinda W. says:

    Even when man makes something uniform, people come along with splotchity additions soon enough. I live in a row of townhouses that all look the same on the outside, and have the same floor plans, yet once you get inside, we’ve all managed to make them uniquely ours. I find it interesting to see how people can take something that started out exactly the same and make them different.

    Thanks for introducing both the word and concept of splotchity. It sounds like it should mean exactly what it means. And I believe God loves the concept too. He didn’t create clones. Even people who look like conformists are unique individuals with amazing stories once you take the time to get to know them.

  12. clark@icfmag.com says:

    To me, the OP id a poetic echo of Elder Wirthlin’s 2008 talk on Concern for the One.
    Key quote: “The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.”

  13. Olde Skool says:

    Amen and amen. And one more to Brad as well.

  14. “There is incredible beauty and elegance in much of the math and physical laws that undergird His universe. There is room for both the regular and the splotchity in the wondrous variety of creation.”

    And yet, all the way down there at the narrow bottom sits the Planck length, obscuring our view and confounding our maths. The absolute zero we can’t reach. The speed of light we can’t cross. Too much and all, for all our elegance, splotchity anyway, as far as anyone can tell.

  15. Robert C, says:

    I like this sharing and unpacking of poetry that you like — it’s very helpful to those of us who don’t otherwise have an occasion to understand or appreciate poetry in our modern harried lives. Thanks, and more please!