Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dappled Things

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th century Catholic convert, an English Jesuit and poet. His style was new and lots of folks don't like new, so his poems weren't published until after his death. How blessed are we then! 

For this poet-priest, God's Revelation and nature go hand in hand. This past week I re-discovered his poem, Pied Beauty, which I remember studying in college English at St. John's University in New York. I don't remember what the professor said about the meaning of the poem, so I've done my own study and reflecting and am pleased to share some of that with you.  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 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: Praise Him.

The Latin motto of the Jesuit Fathers is Ad maiorem Dei gloriam - To the greater glory of God. And so, like bookends, the poem begins and ends with a declaration of God's Glory.

Then for some verses Hopkins teases out where he witnesses God's glory in things that are dappled - that is, spotted and varied. Like the sky when colors touch each other as at sunrise and sunset or if a storm is approaching or light is coming through clouds. Or a spotted cow.

I came across a stream once which was packed with trout all swimming gently upstream. And the sunlight made them shiny and their colors intense as they moved the way fish do. Dappled.

And then for a moment the poet changes direction and takes us from these things that are real and observable outside to the inner reality of our souls in all their variety, using the image of chestnuts that are roasted and glowing (Fresh-firecoal) as they burst open. Then simply the beauty of finches' wings.

Making my descent into Dublin Airport years ago I was indeed taken by the fields over quilted hills and all the various shades of green depending upon the light and whether the field was resting (fallow) or planted and with what: sugar beets, oats, wheat, barley, potatoes. 

Then Hopkins makes a very sensitive move as he considers us - human persons hand in hand with the creator. Us - in all our variety and with our tools and the things we make and use (tradesgear, tackle and trim). He thinks about us in our original ideas and inventions. 

And us where we don't understand or are ignorant (like the rejection of his new kind of poetry) or where human variety is undervalued or known only remotely, by hear-say or prejudice (fickle, freckled), or to which we are not accustomed (who knows how). This is very wonderful as we often tend to value only what is orthodox, approved, acceptable, sanctioned, allowed, legitimate, lawful. My goodness! 

Instead, Hopkins is saying: Oh let's not be so stingy with our appreciations ~ God has made it all (He fathers-forth). Look! Every aspect and every one, even that which we don't acknowledge~in the variety and contrasts (swift/slow) and what we're blind to (adazzle) ~ Look! all of this and all of these are of God's one and beautiful creation. Let us Praise God in this!

And I'm thinking of people who have done incomprehensibly hideous things: each of them was once someone's dearest little boy or girl. Or maybe they were not and should have been.

Wow! If we could only accept this - what love there would be! What peace! What justice! But this is very hard for some people - inconceivable really.


  1. Thank you for your reflections on this poem. If only we could accept this. It does seem unfathomable that this could happen, but we can pray for a change of heart. Even the worst criminal with the most heinous crimes can have a change of heart. So can we all.

    1. Sure, and that's why the Catholic Church has evolved in its thinking about capital punishment. If we execute criminals there is no chance for their conversion and conversion is what the whole thing is about.

  2. The poet takes a lot of time giving examples of dappled, or two colored things. You, however expand his words and give greater depth to the poem. Instead of a list of randomly chosen things in various stages of bifurcation, I can see what the Gerard Manly Hopkins might have been thinking about with a bit more clarity.

  3. I am so happy to know you see the beauty in things Father. That you can see the inner fruit like what bursts forth in the poetic chestnut. It somehow brings me comfort.

    1. You know, I was ordained and immediately sent to a parish where the pastor actualized my worst fears and dread: a sloppy, do-nothing, alcoholic. And while I was so disappointed and angry that things were getting off to a bad start, I was also given the grace to know and feel - how sad for him - that he had lost the joy and zeal he must have known as a young priest years ago. Every newly ordained priest is filled with enthusiasms and dreams and hopes and he lost all of that. Maybe the "glowing chestnut" was still in him - if even as a memory, a regret, the little ember of it that he couldn't access anymore.

    2. How sad for you. And with your own joy and zeal that you went into the priesthood with, did you try to help your pastor, your brother priest? Are not priests trained to counsel and lead people to a better path or were you not able to see past your own anger and disappointment? You could have tried to find that glowing chestnut.

  4. I was 28 years old and had escaped an alcoholic household. The oil wasn't dry on my hands yet. Slamming into him on the first day was a sucker punch. I thought, "What the...." Trying to help my brand new pastor wasn't my first thought. Massive disappointment. Over the next 35 years I've lived with other active alcoholic priests. They are a tough bunch -living in deep shame, denial, hiddenness, dishonesty. They know they have fallen from a great height. Bishops are often very delayed in offering or requiring help. A priest has to get BAD before anything is done professionally. Priests are often very private men. I would say the most unaccountable men I know. It's not a good scene. There is a book titled; The First Five Years. A report on why so many new priests leave during the first five years. Disillusionment.