The title itself of this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a clear indication of what follows: a celebration of imperfection; of diversity, forcing upon the reader a new perspective—an alien perspective not tainted by the artificial, human ideals about beauty. It sends the reader into deep contemplation. Having always associated beauty with perfection, the idea that there is beauty in the ‘pied’, that is, the blemished, is downright absurd, really.
However, the poet insists that is not the case, for the opening lines of the poem go: “Glory be to God for dappled things—“; instead of just stating that there is beauty in the flawed, he goes one step further and thanks the Creator for his imperfect creations. The existence of what others perceive as ‘mistakes’ only deepens Hopkins’ devotion to God.
“For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh fire-coal chestnut-falls; finches wings;”
He then proceeds to list exactly which imperfections he adores: the sky, with its many, many hues of brilliant blue and fiery red and everything in between—now that of course, is acceptable, except he then compares it to a two-toned cow. Yes, I believe it was Shakespeare that said, “Shall I compare thee to a brinded cow which dost cheweth mindlessly o’er and o’er again that which it regurgitates sev’ral hours posteth ingestion”. The poet uses a simile because, just like the cow, which is usually white with streaks of brown or black, the sky too is streaked with different colours: red, yellow, purple, blue, white and orange. And while most of us acknowledge the brilliance of the sky (“most of us” meaning those who take the time “to stop and smell the roses” as the saying goes) we rarely ever give a second thought to cows— let alone ever perceive them as an object of beauty. In our quest for ‘perfection’ we tend to overlook the earthly kind of beauty. But if perfection was the key word, then clear, blue skies should hold more appeal than cloudy, stormy ones; instead, though we might wish for one now and again, blue skies would bore us pretty soon; it is the variety that keeps us enthralled.
It is spectacular how the poet finds the beauty in these common, everyday objects; for example, trout—hardly the epitome of exoticism—primarily seen as a source of food, here it’s described as something which most definitely would (or should) earn a second glance. Gerard Hopkins opens the portal to a whole new world. He gently dissolves away the thin veil around our eyes and exposes us to the beauty in the ordinary. Once we’re privy to this enchanting world, it is impossible to ever look at the world the way we used to. When a foreign object catches our attention, we’re infatuated with its unusual, intoxicating beauty, however no matter how heady the feeling was it eventually goes away. The beauty in the everyday, on the other hand, is of a quieter, lasting kind. It’s quite lovely.
“Fresh fire-coal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings” Here, chestnut kernels are compared to smouldering embers; the reddish-brown meat inside the chestnut, being similar to the fiery reddish-orange hue of glowing coal. An alliteration, this line is a contradiction of sorts. Chestnuts, when ‘fresh’, are green and covered with spikes. It is only once it is ripe and falls to the ground that the red meat inside is revealed and semblance to fiery-hot remnants of a fire can be observed.
Hopkins uses the hyphen (-) to string together words which normally wouldn’t be associated together: ‘rose-moles’, ‘couple-colour’, ‘chestnut-falls’. He joins a word associated with beauty with one that doesn’t exactly seem very appealing: example: moles which invariably invoke the rather ungainly imagery of warts, when paired with ‘rose’, immediately go from being flinch-worthy objects to that whose brilliance can now be openly admired.
Finches’ are black and white, but as it spreads its wings and takes flight, the sun glinting of its airborne feathers transforms this common bird into a mesmerising kaleidoscope of colours. The blurred image of a multi-hued bird in flight is conjured and marks the departure from concrete visuals as the poet moves on to more abstract references.
“Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.”
Hopkins now talks of one of the most ancient and relevant occupations: farming. What was once the source of a scared bond between man and nature has now become…mechanical; lifeless. The joy which our forefathers felt as they sang and tilled is painfully absent, having given way to routine. Which is why the poet feels the need to thank God for “Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough;” (alliteration), the result of a farmer’s daily toil. And though farming has changed the land and it no longer looks natural and unspoiled, it bears harvest, which gives way to joy.
The poet then goes on to thank God for all the other occupations which have brought us closer to Nature and God: “And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.” He also expresses gratitude for the everyday tools, those which have been taken for granted by us. When have we ever thanked god for the sledgehammer or the mining machinery or the fishing nets?
His next line serves to include every component of nature: “all things counter, original, spare and strange;” The poet celebrates all things unique, through the words “original” and “spare”—as in those things which are sparsely found. “Spare” also refers to things which are considered ‘extra’ and which are not intended to have a place—for example, those extra bolts and screws that are provided upon purchase of furniture have no place in the original piece—they are there simply to be called upon in time of need, until then they lie, useless, in the bottom drawer of some dusty cupboard. They are outcasts, and yet the poet deems then necessary. “Counter” refers to opposing creations. The poet is highlighting on their key role in creating a balance in nature and how even they should be appreciated no matter how unseemly: for example, if the sun never set, if darkness never engulfed the land, the brilliance of the stars would go unsung. “Strange” includes all things weird.
This tone is carried forward in “Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)” Even though fickleness in humans is not a very appealing quality and looked down upon, this very fickleness in Nature is exactly what is so alluring about it.
“With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
The poet uses the oxymoron to illustrate how it doesn’t matter if something is “swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim”, they are all beautiful. The poet plays on all our senses with this line. He is once again, celebrating fickleness in nature, for what was once sour, eg: unripe apple, can become sweet upon the passage of time; a river, in its early stage may be exciting with tis fresh water and swift pace yet it is just as important in its slower, lower course; the dazzling diamond is simply a lump of carbon, just like the dull graphite.
“He fathers-forth” gives a sense of continuity; the only constant thing about nature is the fact that it is constantly changing. Yet, no matter which form it morphs into, it isn’t any less lovely.
The poem ends with a simple “Praise him.”—the Divine Creator. These two words sum up the poem very beautifully.