On "Pied Beauty"

This is the second in a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.

 Pied Beauty

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.

Hopkins starts right out with his scheme for the poem, the exhortation with which he both begins and ends: “Glory be to God!” For what? “For dappled things.”  

What exactly is a “dappled thing”? We tend to think of dappled—or pied, as in the poem’s title—as meaning “spotted,” like a dappled horse or the sunlight dappling the ground beneath a tree in autumn; but Hopkins broadens that meaning and gives us some surprise examples of “dappled things”: “skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow”; “rose-moles in stipple upon trout that swim”—these are spotted things. The white clouds against the blue sky give it the appearance of a cow with her black patches on her white hide. What a wonderful image. And trout, especially rainbow trout, are speckled (or “stippled”) with tiny, dark-brown spots on a pale pink ground all along their flanks and near their gills.  

However, Hopkins proceeds to offer yet more examples of “dappled things”: “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim…” It sounds as if, for Hopkins, anything that has contrasting qualities or changeability is “dappled,” anything that is not uniform but rather patchy, variegated, even “strange.” In other words, everything in the physical world that surrounds us is a “dappled thing.” Nature is full of variety; and, just as the surface of a lake is one moment adazzle with sunlight and another moment dim as a cloud rolls overhead, even dissimilar qualities found within the same object serve to complement each other.

To quote a different Hopkins poem, “I say more.”  Taking Hopkins’ description of the world a step beyond what he says in this poem, is it not an apt characterization of human beings as well? Not one of us is precisely the same as anyone else: we differ widely from each other in all things physical, moral, and spiritual. From moment to moment, we differ even from ourselves, as varying moods, situations, or desires dictate our behavior. The fact of the matter is, we are all “dappled things.”

What does Hopkins finally have to say about such “pied beauty”?:  “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” God is the one who made all dappled things. Our beauty and that of the world may be pied, as Hopkins puts it, but it is ultimately a reflection of the source of all that is beautiful and the one who is himself unchangingly beautiful. We “dappled things” thus serve both as a foil to God’s own perfect, unvariegated beauty and as a glorification of His loveliness. Thus, whenever you see anything or anyone that is lovely, however changeable or various it or he or she may be, remember whence that loveliness came and “Praise him.”


Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman is Operations Manager, Web Master, and Artistic Director for Cana Academy.