Library Tuesdays: Pied Beauty

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It's taken me a long time to realize how much trauma and hardship many of my friends have suffered at the hands of standardized tests. In part, this is because of my seemingly native test-taking skills, but more than that, standardized reading tests have actually introduced me to some of my favorite authors. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, given the mind-numbing boredom that is traditionally associated with test-taking and the bland corporate nature of test-creation giant ETS, I have gleaned gem after gem from those reading tests. Starting with my first standardized test in elementary school, via which I discovered Zilpha Keatley Snyder's classic The Egypt Game, hardly a bubble-filling session has passed in which I wasn't struck by some intriguing plot point or turn of phrase, and whenever I could squirrel away enough information to track down the source later on, I would always do my best to find it.

So I'm not all that surprised at my grand discovery from the English Literature GRE:

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 trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
        With swíft, slów, sweet, sóur, adázzle, dím;
He fathers forth whose beauty is pást change:
                                           Práise hím.

I was given the first stanza as a simple ID, and had no idea who wrote it; I guessed wrong, veering toward the early twentieth century because the language seemed so playful and experimental. I had never heard of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it turns out that he was a Catholic priest living in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and the author of this gorgeous little poem, as well as copious others which he never published or showed to many people due to how "strange" they were, and also due to his wariness about seeking praise when his religion dictated humility. He pioneered the use of "sprung rhythm" in modern poetry, a system of stresses which hearkens back to ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry (this is what all the accents are about). The nexus of ancient and avant-garde is pretty magical to me, and the man's personal history is also strangely compelling.

As a strident agnostic, I am not usually one to jump at a verse whose main goal is to praise God. But the language and the theology here are both so unusual and strikingly beautiful that I just can't help myself. It seems to me a rare day when I find a Christian poem that praises "all things counter, original, spare, strange" rather than encouraging conformity to the One Righteous Path. It seems equally rare to find a nineteenth-century Christian who finds God passionately in the idiosyncrasies of the natural world, rather than in renouncing that world. And it's not the Romantic notion of the epic or the sublime that calls it up, not rushing cataracts or towering ice-capped peaks, but the mottled skin of a trout or a cow, the undulations of ploughed earth, and "whatever is fickle." This deeply-felt, sensually-expressed connection to the unusual and brindled of the earthly world approaches a theology I can get behind.

I love to revisit this poem at times when I need a little bit of grounding, or when I'm taking stock, so I thought it was a good choice for the New Year. One of my goals for the time to come is to give more thanks for, and notice to, the dappled details of earth and language. Happy 2007 to all.

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  • You might like to listen to a version of Pied Beauty set to music:

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography