Why “Dappled Studies”?

img_2700Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles in all 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.
“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

If you know me well, you’ll gather two things: 1) my likelihood to name a blog after a poem, and 2) my obsession with Hopkins. This poem completed my long journey back to faith after an arduous crisis; how could I read it without experiencing both confession and praise?

Like most literary obsessions I now have, I discovered Hopkins’ poetry because of my students. When I taught AP Literature, I devoted an entire quarter to poetic structure—and, of course, Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” is a textbook example (quite literally in our AP textbook). Intrigued by his mastery of sound, I began researching and discovered that this poet-turned-priest burned all of his pre-conversion poetry. He then swore off poetry because he didn’t see the connection between his vocation and art. Thankfully, seven years later, his rector pressured him to write a poem in remembrance of five monks drowning in a shipwreck, and afterwards he couldn’t put the pen down. What does this conviction of Hopkins’ to refrain from poetry reveal about his view of art?

Hopkins understood the power of art to speak to the human soul; he appreciated the responsibility of the artist; and perhaps above all, he realized the importance of language in pointing us to the Word Himself.

Yet Hopkins, for all his wisdom and clarity concerning art, had a dappled life. He was surrounded by darkness in his later years (see his poem “Peace”). And this idea of “dappling” reminds me of reality: there are shadows that we don’t quite understand, moments that will never become clear. There is a fickleness, a constant change to our lives, that may confuse us. This dappling affects even my studies: every grasping at truth seems to terminate in both beauty and mystery.

I remember discovering this poem last winter, and it became so sacred to me that I didn’t even want to teach it. But I eventually gave in–even if it was just for the beauty of Hopkins’s language–and brought it into the classroom. My students, being teenagers, were experiencing immense changes every day; they were struggling to see the beauty of life, wondering who would be loyal in the end, and perhaps seeking something eternal. Hopkins, in eleven short lines, encapsulates my goal in the classroom: to communicate beauty, mystery, and an unchanging God while inviting moments of doxology and confession.

The line that surprises me every time I read this poem is the last: “Praise him.” For all the things we encounter in life, those things “counter, original, spare, strange,” our response should be doxology. What begins as a description of spotted things ends in a simple response: praising the God of all.

And if you haven’t read this poem all the way through–aloud–now would be the time; you may soon come to appreciate Hopkins’s mastery of the English language and his insight into the human soul.


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