To read the Presocratic fragments is to re-enter a world where the simplest natural phenomena, such as boiling water, can set your bones quaking…
To read the Presocratic fragments is to re-enter a world where the simplest natural phenomena, such as boiling water, can set your bones quaking. Today it is a cliche that “opposites attract”: to Heraclites or Thales, it is an inexhaustible source of wonder. They ceaselessly trace even the foundations of the world to contraries: the tension between Strife and Love. Although later philosophers developed their fragmented ideas, this primal awe and love of origins carried down through the ages until it crept into the notebooks and poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His study of Parmenides, conducted while he taught at Newman’s Oratory, revitalizes the Presocratic’s view of the world by uniting it to his own observations:
The phenomenal world… is the brink, limbus, lapping, run-and-mingle, of two principles, which meet in the scape of everything: probably Being, in its modification or siding of particular oneness or Being, and of Non-Being, in its siding of the Many…. The inscape will be the proportion of the mixture (Collected Works, Vol. IV, pg. 311-317)
Here, for the first time on record, Hopkins uses his terms “inscape,” alongside its cognate, “instress” (cf. Bernadette Waterman Ward, World as Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins, pg. 113). “Inscape” denotes the richness of being within a thing (why sunsets never grow dull); “instress” refers to man’s ability to draw out this meaning (why we never weary of praising the sunset.) Within the context of Parmenides, Hopkins’ use of these terms implies an intimate connection between the foundations of his thought and the Presocratic vision. The richness, the “inscape,” of the phenomenal world lies in the interplay of contrary with contrary, and man’s knowledge of it, or “instress,” is the recognition of the Being underlying mutability. All that we observe is poured out from this paradoxical union.
Against this background, Hopkins’ later poem “Pied Beauty” reveals itself in great part as a continuation of Parmenides’ chariot-ride to the fount of Being. On its surface, the poem is a litany of “dappled things,” from speckled trout to finches’ wings. Yet below the satisfying play of its sounds and imagery, “Pied Beauty” is a hymn praising contrariety in nature as the bridge to the Unchanging:
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:
Between the majestic exhortation of the opening line, “Glory be to God,” and the simplicity of the last, “praise him,” Hopkins enfolds the world within unchanging being, a “beauty past change.” Parmenides’ Being is here Christianized (we can now address the Deity personally, by masculine pronouns), yet its deed is the same. When changeless beauty encounters “nothing,” it fathers-forth the phenomenal world, in landscapes and brinded skies. The complete actuality of God pours out all the variegation of the phenomenal world, just as Parmenides had glimpsed.
The Presocratic influence does not simply underpin “Pied Beauty,” however. It charges through all Hopkins’ imagery, as further analysis makes clear. In the first seven lines, he revels in all natural changes, from heaven to earth. Even the very word “dappled” brings forth the play of light on dark, overshadowing all creation from the patchwork of the countryside to the stippling of trout. Hidden below the specific images are the four elements, which through their combination and disintegration traditionally bring about all change. In the “skies of couple-color” we find air; in “trout that swim,” water; in “fresh firecoal chestnut falls,” fire; and in “landscape plotted and pieced,” earth. Without mimicry, Hopkins here carries a subtle undertone of the ancients, of the Heraclitean fire and Thalian water.
Nevertheless, his rejoicing is in a Christian world: The poem’s structure roughly follows the order of creation in Genesis. Light’s origin is not explicit here, perhaps because it is, in itself, pure and unmixed; likewise, darkness is merely its absence, and thus nearly nothing. Neither belongs properly to the “lapping-run-and-mingle” of contraries. Hopkins’ litany begins with the creation of heaven, laced with “skies of couple-color,” followed by waters (“trout that swim”), plants (“chestnut falls”), and beasts (“finches’ wings) adorning the “landscape plotted and pieced.” All nature, woven by the dance and interplay of elements, flow from the Father to reveal his glory. At once participating in and falling short of his infinite being, the order of creation is itself a “dappled thing” glorifying God. Thus Hopkins’ instress of creation unites both the Parmenidean principles of Being and Non-Being with the Christian love of the Father: Inscape itself stems from the creature’s inferiority to the Creator, its admixture of finitude with the infinite.
At the summit of the order of creation man appears, at “all trades.” Perhaps oddly, Hopkins’ praise of man does not touch upon what he is in himself, but rather his “gear and tackle and trim.” Nevertheless, his treatment accords with the rest of the poem. Since man, like God, can bring forth a kind of being (he has the power to instress or sub-create), in praising the “gear and tackle and trim” of trades Hopkins proclaims the image of God in man. Human art, working by brushes and hammers, reflects the divine craftsmanship, which works by contraries. At the same time, as Hopkins indicates by both the tools and the “fold, fallow, and plough,” man’s creation is imperfect. His instress, his drawing-forth of forms, always carries strain with it on account of the Fall. The landscape is “plotted and pieced” in the sweat of his brow; he brings forth his bread among the thorns. Yet even though work is man’s punishment, Hopkins hints that even it brings a kind of beauty to the world: the orderly dishevelment of a patchwork quilt.
Like Parmenides’ chariot, in its second stanza “Pied Beauty” moves away from the concrete into the abstract, at “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” “Counter” carries us back to the continual theme of contraries (its root is the Latin contra), but with the hint of “counterpoint”: Opposites layer themselves above and below one another for the sake of harmony, rather than cacophonous disjunction. “Original” delights in whatever is singular and unspoiled, whatever does not “wear man’s smudge and share man’s smell.” Yet it is also whatever is an origin, whatever brings forth other things in imitation of the changeless one.
“Spare” and “strange” reveal the paradoxical simplicity and mystery of this world, that can hold such contradictions within it. “Whatever is fickle, freckled, (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim”: here we come, finally, to the pairs of contraries themselves, counterpointing one another with their variety. They have lain beneath all the other images in the litany, and now, as in the Presocratics, finally surface as the underpinnings of all beauty in the phenomenal world.
“Nothing is so pregnant and straightforward to the truth as simple yes and is,” says Hopkins in his notes on Parmenides. At its heart, the litany of “Pied Beauty” has the same wonder at the mystery of Being as the earliest philosophers had known. Its sheaves and bushels of imagery—the elements, creation, and man—all unite in a single affirmation. The proper response to inscape, to the “lapping, run-and-mingle” of Being with Non-Being, is not subtle discourse in possibilities. Rather, it is acceptance of contrariety’s paradox: It is asking for causes and answering by assent. By the Parmenidean “yes and is,” Hopkins can hear the polyphony of finches’ wings and speckled trout as the “lapping, run-and-mingle” of Being with Non-Being. And in recognizing the mystery of this changing, fickle universe, he can sacrifice it to the unwavering origin of all being. “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change, / Praise him.”
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