Whatever Is Fickle

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Gerard Manley Hopkins

Last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, my twelve-year-old daughter came home from school and said that she wanted to observe Lent. Her friends are observing it, and she finds interesting the idea of “giving something up.” Why? She couldn’t really explain, but the impulse was strong enough that she decided to give up texting; by way of support, I’ve given up Facebook. Modest sacrifices, sure, but if the purpose of Lent is to free time for loftier meditation (prayer & penance) and more noble action (charity), reclaiming hours from social media seems a good step, even if one is, in some dry technical sense of the word, agnostic. Simplify, observe, act. Thoreau would approve. The Buddha would approve. Yes, Christ would approve.

Because we do so little by way of religion in our house, I offered to take my daughter to one of the local churches that observes Lent, and on Sunday we went to St. Andrew’s Episcopal, where the pastor was friendly and the congregants cheerful and the bell chorus chimed us into the service. The churchgoing strain is not strong in me, though, and probably little can happen to change that now. For me there are too few aspects of worship that resonate, spiritually or otherwise, perhaps because I cannot distract myself from what I hear as the bald literalness of Biblical presentation—in this Sunday’s case, the Devil tempting Christ in the desert. Only when I abstract from the scriptures some textual symmetry or general theme—a juxtaposition of images, a poetic turn of phrase, a more widely humanistic concern—do I feel at all provoked, but then it seems I’ve approached the enterprise of religion disingenuously.

I don’t mean to sound cynical or aloof. I am pleased to discuss the dynamic connotations of the Greek words we translate simply as “love” when, after the resurrection, Jesus thrice asks Peter to care for his sheep; I am willing to sit with Job and his comforters and wince as he scrapes his sores with shards of pottery; I am ready to contemplate with moral seriousness the beatitudes. The stories of scripture are part of my personal history, and their language is familiar to me, but when asked whether I believe in Jesus, whether I accept him as a savior, I hardly understand the question. You might as well ask if I have faith in Stephen Daedalus, or Bartleby, or Aphrodite. So, on the question of faith, so far as I’ve been able to understand it, the only plausible answer is, without malice, no. And so, sitting in any church, I feel self-conscious and conspicuous, a tourist, an imposter. The people in the pews, after all, really believe, don’t they? Wouldn’t they say it matters that one regard a holy text as sacred and divinely inspired, and not merely an occasion for literary analysis or personal reflection—even if they politely asserted so?

These concerns are tiresome, and I ought to know better—but I’m unable, so far, to resolve them and quit my mental fidgeting. However, my agitation belongs to me and not my daughter, who seemed to enjoy the hymns, the call and response, and the sermon itself, and who asked to return next week.

Meanwhile, around the time I forsook status updates for the Lenten season, I happened to hear an episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest in which one of the podcasters recommended the poem “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest and Victorian poet whose work I’ve somehow missed. 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 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.

Put aside God for a moment, and take the poem as it otherwise is—its dizzying alliteration, its minting of compound words, its rhythm and musicality, its frivolity and joy in language. I read it several times and decided this Monday to place it in front of my freshmen. What’s “dappled?” they asked. Or “brinded,” or “stipple,” or, for that matter, “pied”? It didn’t take long, however, to sort through the diction and realize that this simple poem is a celebration of, well, splotches and patterns and stripes, of texture, of contrast and differentiation wherever the eye happens to fall. The poem starts in nature, yes, but it quickly leaps to embrace “all things counter, original, spare, strange”; furthermore, as it leaps, it uses language that is itself “dappled”: the euphonious “sweet, sour” veers from the cacophonous “fickle, freckles” before crashing into “adazzle, dim.” All this noise, all this percussive fuss, held in place by gentle rhyme: the poem is active, doing the thing that it is about, and thereby transcends the language in which it’s written.

We found in the poem sufficient material for an hour’s contemplation, although I sensed, after the students were gone, that we’d left God standing in the corner, all but absent from our conversation. “Praise him.” Well, why? Hopkins, we might have observed, says that God’s own “beauty is past change,” by which he refers, perhaps, to the perfection or purity or wholeness of God: God outside of time, God beyond the capacity for comprehension, God utterly complete and constant and invisible in the very nature of his divine being. And yet, somehow, a God who “fathers-forth” a dappled, stippled, pied, and freckled world to match our fickle human nature, lest we give up altogether on it and him.

I’m no Gerard Manley Hopkins, who could surely put the matter more eloquently and reverently than I can, but I wonder, really, how essential my old notion of God-as-literal-creator-whom-I-worship is, in the scope of my worldview, for me to appreciate this poem. On the subject of divinity, I’m altogether fickle, myself. This morning, however, while driving up and down hills toward the school where I teach, I had to stop for a flock of turkeys crossing the road. They came out of a wooded hillside studded with rocks and boulders deposited eons ago by a receding glacier, and they jerked or flapped their way over the pavement and into a field of snow. A spontaneous tableau: horses by a wooden fence, heads low to the ground, ignored by and ignoring ten, twenty, thirty turkeys flouncing in single-file across farmland toward the horizon. One of them, a male, standing off to the side, his plumage puffed out, his tail feathers fanned. A bare willow in the distance. A sun still rising. An entire scene, as if given to me: dappled, brinded, stippled, pied.

Hopkins might say that God gave me this scene; I say his poem did, or a new way of apprehending it, and perhaps what I ought to learn is that the distinction isn’t worth making after all. The words on the page were written onto the landscape itself, and always had been, and now I could see them. Praise indeed.