On diversity: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Meet Woody.

The most excellent horse in the world

Woody is not mine, sadly, but he’s the horse I ride most weeks, when the Dude and I go off to the local riding school on a Friday evening for our lesson. I’ve been riding Woody for about two and a half years now, and he is excellent. He’s a great big chunk of a horse – just under seventeen hands high – and is very good-natured, which is fortunate, given that he’s such a unit. He tries very hard and does as he’s told, and in our last lesson he managed a beautiful floaty trot, head down and concentrating. There is something lovely about going riding on a Friday after school, doing something challenging and absorbing that’s completely different to what I’ve been doing all week, and then leaving Woody munching hay in his stable, all tucked up for the night in his rug. I am lucky.

What’s the connection between Woody and Gerard Manley Hopkins? Woody is the colour that used to be known as skewbald, but is now more correctly referred to as tobiano, big bold patches of dark brown and white. If he’d been black and white, he’d have been a piebald, his coat mapped out in continents. And patches – and dapples, and freckles, and spots – form part of Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’, a poem that I’ll be doing with Year Twelve in a few weeks’ time. It’s a brilliant poem for exploring the richness that can be offered by different critical approaches, and I approach it by examining successive layers of interpretation, starting with the words on the page, adding in relevant biographical detail and then introducing elements of queer theory. If you don’t know ‘Pied Beauty’, here it is:

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.

The poem is, in part, a hymn to the great variety of the natural world. I introduce it through showing a series of images, and getting students to describe what they can see: a dapple-grey horse, a speckled roan cow, a goldfinch, an aerial view of a landscape looking like a patchwork quilt, a mackerel sky at sunset. We look at how Hopkins conjures such vivid images in just a few words. ‘Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls’: isn’t that brilliant? Could there ever be a better description of conkers straight from the shell, all bright and glowing, before they lose their gorgeous sheen?

In the final line of the opening sestet, Hopkins turns to the human world. What does he seem to be saying here? It’s a statement, as clear as anything, that there is room for everyone, of all pursuits and professions. And this continues into the next line: ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’. I remind the students that counter can mean in opposition to, as in ‘counter-argument’ and ‘counter-cultural’, coming from the same Anglo-Norman root as contrast and contrary. There’s a place for you, no matter who or what you are.

At this point, we think about the references to God. God, the poem clearly indicates, is eternal and unchanging, while on earth things are full of diversity, patched and variegated and multifaceted. But this world, and the multitudes that it contains, are all part of God’s creation. So far, so simple. Does the poem need to be more complicated than that?

Well, yes, it does. Because up until now, I haven’t told the students anything about Hopkins himself. And it’s now that I introduce them to Hopkins’ complex Jesuit faith, the sense of unworthiness that plagued him throughout his life, and the self-loathing he experienced as a result of his attraction to men. Hopkins loved the natural world, and saw it as a manifestation of the power of his God, writing in one diary entry that ‘I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it’. Yet he was also haunted by the thought that the sensory pleasure he took in the natural world clashed with the austerity and self-denial demanded by his religion. He undertook self-imposed penances, such as the ‘penance of the eyes’, which involved keeping his eyes fixed on the ground as a means of repressing his passion for nature. He fell intensely in love with a young man called Digby Dolben, who he met at Oxford, and his journals have been described as showing ‘how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts’ of Dolben. Hopkins does not appear to have experienced any kind of physical intimacy with another person, male or female. But a number of his poems – notably ‘Felix Randal’ – focus on the muscular beauty of male bodies, and Hopkins was also drawn to physical representations of Christ on the cross. The repetitions and exclamations in his poetry have been read as a reflection of the pent-up emotion that he had to suppress elsewhere in his life. And even the form of ‘Pied Beauty’ can be seen as subversive. It’s a curtal sonnet, ten and a half lines instead of the conventional fourteen, but with enough of a nod – in its sestet and quatrain – to the rules that it should be following. Because we also study Tony Harrison, another writer of unconventional sonnets, we can look at what is signalled by playing around with this most respectable of forms. I don’t have to do what I’m supposed to, it says. I’m going to make up my own rules.

So we can see ‘Pied Beauty’ not just as a hymn of praise, but also as a celebration of diversity. And students who might not have felt much potential for connection with a man who was about to be ordained into a strict Roman Catholic sect suddenly see the possibility of shared ground. Counter, original, spare, strange … ‘Pied Beauty’ offers a space for all of us, for those who find themselves ridiculous and those who feel they’ll never fit in. I only wish Hopkins had been able to believe his own message.

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