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A Poem for Spring: “Pied Beauty”

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By happy providence, this week’s warm-up (I mean, who needs a coat when it’s all the way up to 42!) coincided with one of my favorite sections in my British literature survey course: our study of the Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In my view, Hopkins is in the running for best Christian poet ever. His poems are dense and delightful, faithful and fraught, innovative and idiosyncratic yet insightful. They bear reading again and again–each time yielding something beautiful and brilliant. During his own short life–he died of typhoid at age 44–Hopkins celebrated the glorious design of God’s world and each creature’s distinctive place within it (he called this distinctiveness “inscape,” short for inner landscape). When that inner landscape is projected out into the world through action (he called this “instress”), the result testifies to God’s individual stamp on each thing in creation. By extension, then, Hopkins’ poetry, which chronicles this process, helps the reader see anew this wondrous work. Even in his later “Terrible Sonnets,” where he struggles intensely with depression and spiritual sterility, Hopkins continues to look for even the smallest moments of grace to peek through.

What I particularly love about Hopkins is that his is not a generic celebration of God’s awesomeness and wonder. He writes at an angle: turning the reader’s eyes aslant, readjusting the frame, refocusing the viewfinder–choose your metaphor.

So this morning, I give you “Pied Beauty.” Here Hopkins wants us to look again at small, “patchy” things–not a more cliched view of beauty in an unbroken, glossy aesthetic or a grand symbol.

No, he says here: it’s not just the cow, it’s the variegated colors of the cow; it’s not just the fish, but its very spots; it’s not just the bird, but the bird’s wing. The sublime can be found everywhere, even (especially?) the gorgeous quilt that is farmland. Every job is lovely–and all the tools we need to do them, too. In short, beauty–however we find it and no matter how unconventional, norm-defying, odd–is all a minutely choreographed dance of praise.

Pay attention, he says, God’s plentitude lies in particularity.

And the only response is thanksgiving.

Pied Beauty 

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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: 
                                Praise him.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? I also now chair the department. And along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.


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