“Glory be to God for dappled things,” I thought, pausing on a run in the woods near my house. The late afternoon sun came slanting through the grey tree trunks and lit up the leaves like bits of stained-glass in a church window. All around me, layers of fallen leaves obscured the paths so that I seemed to have walked into a watercolor. Like a watercolor, although all seemed still, a hint of movement hovered around the edges of things—as if the artist had just, the very moment before, lifted his brush and let the water and pigments seep into the page.
“Glory be to God for dappled things” is the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem Pied Beauty. One of my old professors regularly admonished us about the importance of getting some poetry permanently into our heads, and, although my current store is pretty pitiful, most of Pied Beauty is in there. Here’s the whole thing:
Rather than do a close-reading of this poem, I just want to briefly consider how this poem helped me yesterday afternoon, and how similar works can help us all.
In an essay titled Learning How To See Again, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper warns that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” One reason for this, he argues, is that “there is too much to see!” Visual noise—the constant input from videogames and television shows and billboards and magazines and now cell phones and iPads etc. etc.—can obscure our perception and make us more and more “totally passive consumers of mass-produced goods.” St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing Aristotle, teaches that “nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses.” What, then, are the consequences for our intellects when we spend more time looking at manufactured or artificial reality rather than the real thing?
Pieper doesn’t use this particular term, but he essentially suggests that our senses can atrophy. We can become like the people of Jeremiah’s prophecy “who have eyes, and see not: and ears, and hear not” and who therefore lack understanding.
So what is to be done?
Besides abstaining when we can from the noise, Pieper says that the most immediate and effective remedy is “to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.” The mere attempt to create an artistic form “compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.” I am reminded of my art professor at George Mason, who would always tell us (and sometimes shout at us) to “stop inventing!” and instead “look harder” and draw only what we actually see. When you’re trying to draw a human face, for example, it’s so easy to fall back and draw what you think you see—which is some combination of generic ideals and cartoon images—rather than what you really see. People’s faces aren’t really circular, their eyes aren’t really symmetrical little ovals, and the whites of their eyes are almost never actually white! But you have to slow down, and I mean really slow down, to be able to see that. Then you can begin trying to honestly communicate what you see.
What applies to painted or sculpted images also applies to verbal images. When I ran into the woods, the rich beauty of the scene literally stopped me in my tracks. I tried to think of words fit to describe what I saw, but it’s difficult to slow down enough to really observe. That’s where Hopkins’s poem helped me out. “Dappled things . . . fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls . . . whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) . . . adazzle, dim . . .”– those phrases jumped out of my memory right into the woods around me. Hopkins’s vision must have been so intense, and so patient, for him to have created such personal and yet authentic verbal images. Hopkins’s observations also led me to look more closely and carefully at my own surroundings.
The visions of artists like Hopkins can challenge us, like my art professor, to look harder and to notice more. Art that comes from sincere investigation, and that notices those things that are small and often overlooked, can help us to slow down and to see more and to speak more truthfully about reality.