That’s the title poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) gave to the poem I want to share with you. Apparently, he was inspired by seeing a magpie, a very common bird in his native England. Magpies are easy to identify because of their sharply contrasting feathers of black and blue and white. Pied, the abbreviated form of the name, emerged in English usage to describe things that are marked by bold, apparently random blotches of shapes and colors. The only other places I’ve seen the word used are in the fairy tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin (because of the bright, contrasting clothes the piper wore) and in describing dog or horse breeds (because of their irregular, usually-white areas in a dark coat).
But magpies also have some more negative features that tend to tarnish their reputation in the minds of their human neighbors. First, their incessant loud singing can become annoying, and this has led to the dismissive way of referring to people who talk too much as “magpies.” Then there’s their aggressiveness; they are so territorial that they often attack humans who come too close, sometimes causing injuries. Their feeding pattern of pecking ticks and lice from the bodies of farm animals led to a belief by some observers that they were actually attacking the livestock and feeding on their flesh.
But one beautiful afternoon, it was magpie thoughts that led Hopkins the poet (who was also a devout Jesuit priest) to celebrate the radical diversity God has built into his wonderful Creation. Here’s his poem, Pied Beauty:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled 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 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 1
What a wonderful first line: Glory be to God for dappled things! An avalanche of other intriguing adjectives follow: brindled, stippled, spare, strange, fickle, freckled. Extreme contrasts also exist in the variety of ways we experience Nature’s surprising diversity: swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
We humans and our impact on our environment are also listed among Hopkins’ dappled things:
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
We are part of the hodge-podge of Nature. As with magpies and other pied things, our contribution is not all neat and positive. We’re speckled and erratic. However, these are not presented in the poem as bad qualities. It’s not about sin and alienation; it’s about messiness and imperfection. These excentric things about us, as with other examples in Nature that have been mentioned in the poem, have a unique kind of beauty in them. God doesn’t reject us for our dappled qualities, just as he doesn’t reject magpie chatter, milk from brindled cows or trout that have spots on them that look like rose-moles. God embraces us (fathers-forth) to squeeze more beauty out.
Gerard Manley Hopkins simply ends the poem with Praise him. My feelings exactly.
– – Pastor George Van Alstine
1 If you’re interested in going deeper into the poetry of Pied Beauty, you may enjoy the reading at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kn-2GABXeiw
Also, the literary analysis at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcelwMeBC0A