All things counter, original, spare, strange

I’ve always been attracted to life on the margins. People and places and things that are out of the mainstream always seem more colorful to me, more interesting. Now, in the full glory of middle life, I have chosen a lifestyle that puts me on the margins of society. Some religious people might say that I am in the world, but not of it. Other people, not so generous, might say that I’m an odd bird who doesn’t fly with the rest of the flock.

But society needs its marginal people, too. After all, it is the margins of a page that define it, give it form and beauty and importance, that contain it. When particularly impressed by something we read, we might make a note in the margin – a convenient place from which to observe and process what’s going on in the mainstream.

It is in that spirit that I read Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 1877 poem, “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 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.

What a fantastic phrase that is: “All things counter, original, spare, strange”. These are words that are more often pejorative than not, but Hopkins is giving glory to his God for them.

I suppose poets are on the margins, too.

6 Responses

  1. Cristina says:

    What’s strange however is that of all my friends I don’t really think I know anyone who’d define themselves as mainstream. I never knew whether that was because birds of a feather… (to borrow from your avian imagery) or because people like to think of themselves as outsiders, and the ordinary people are always the others . And, in a sense they’d all be right? Also, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Starry Night.

    Of course, your “aside” is a little different. It’s interesting that you should use the “in the world but not of it” phrase. I guess I always thought that all Christians as a rule should be that, so that, to me, what monks and nuns do here — basically Orthodox monastery life — is closer to an attempt to leave the world, to not be “in” it at all. A little challenge for me to think and rethink things (unless I get lazy).

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thanks for the comment, Cristina. I blush to admit that I chose Starry Night because of all the unusual, unexpected colors, that’s all.

      Christian concepts of “in the world, but not of it” vary a lot. In the Latin church, for example, the canonical definition of a hermit is someone who lives a life of prayer and penance “in greater withdrawal from the world” but it doesn’t say greater than what. It’s fairly loose.

  2. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a beautiful poem called “Heaven-Haven”. I believe it has the subtitle or dedication “On A Nun Taking the Veil”.


    I have desired to go
    Where springs not fail,
    To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
    And a few lilies blow.

    And I have asked to be
    Where no storms come,
    Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
    And out of the swing of the sea.

    I wrote a song cycle in college based on his poems. This was one of my favorites. After meeting several nuns over the years, though, I don’t think the life he describes matches the real world of a nun.

  3. Knot Telling says:

    It is beautiful… and very romantic, yet entirely appropriate to the time and place and the often dewy-eyed expectations of a young woman “taking the veil”. It is such a poem of beginnings that I went and got my volume of Hopkins down to see if maybe you had quoted only the beginning of the poem. But no; that’s the whole thing.

    It reminds me a little bit of a Filipina nun, an abbess of the order known as the Poor Clares, whom I met when she was here on a pilgrimage. She told me that when she went through the large enclosure doors to begin her life as a nun she thought she was entering into the anteroom of heaven and would be singing with the angels. Instead, she said with a rueful smile, she ended up living with a lot of very human Poor Clares.

    I am very interested in this song cycle, James.

  4. emma says:

    I, too, have always loved “Heaven Haven”. I doubt it mirrors the life of many nuns nowadays. I think it is about serenity (gimme some of that serenity stuff NOW!!).

    Here is Hopkins in utter joy:

    The Windhover

    To Christ our Lord

    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

    No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
    Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

    I first read this as a teenager at school, and was amazed by the love and ecstasy therein. It was a good time to meet Hopkins, because I was experiencing quite a lot of love and ecstasy myself at that age (boys, the new wonders of literature, exciting expectations).

    I really heart this bit.

    “…oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!”

  5. Knot Telling says:

    Yes! It’s as though he can hardly contain himself for the joy of it! Thank you for reminding me of this one, Emma.

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