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:
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.