One of the greatest of Catholic poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., is best known for his appreciation of the beauty, variety, and individuality (“this-ness”) of God’s creation. As a poet he saw God’s hand everywhere in nature and in human nature. As he wrote in one of his poems, “Christ plays in ten thousand places”: in the world above of stars and sky (“Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!”); in the world below of the changing seasons (“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring”); in the kingdom of animals and plants, the “brute beauty” of powerful birds like the windhover and of stalwart stallions, and the delicate beauty of the bluebell (“I know the beauty of Our Lord by it”); and in the realm of human nature, whose wonderful diversity and richness he compares to the abundance of tastes and aromas that enhance the art of cooking. Two poems that testify to God’s everpresent love and goodness are “Pied Beauty,” perhaps Hopkins’ most famous poem, and “Brothers,” one that is not as well known as it deserves to be.
“Pied Beauty” portrays God’s handiwork as the art of a master craftsman. As an artist God leaves evidence of His stamp everywhere. The immeasurable number of beautiful things in the world, God’s inexhaustible riches in nature, His love of infinite variety and endless color all lead the poet to know the “invisible” things of God by the things that are “visible,” as St. Paul said. “Pied Beauty” or “dappled things” refer to God’s love of distinctive, individual things that are marked with “couple-color” to make them unique. In the poem Hopkins’ observations discover beauty in all its inexhaustible variety.
First, he notices the beauty of the heavens that is formed at sunrise and sunset when the blended hues of red, yellow and orange adorn the sky to create the richness of color and the beauty of contrast. Next, the poet sees in the “brinded” (brindled) cow the same pattern that shapes the sky: endless combinations of color that appear on the skin or fur of the animals — black and white or brown and white patches and streaks that punctuate the world with beautiful strokes. God’s love of color and variety appears again in the rainbow trout that sparkle with iridescent beams of light and reflect unique configurations of rose moles, another example of “dappled” (spotted) beauty. The shapes and formations of chestnuts are also ever-varying, no two ever possessing beauty exactly the same size or contour. Thus all of creation, from the beautiful skies above to the rainbow trout in the waters below, from the animal world of brindled cows to the plant kingdom of chestnut falls, all reflect the glory of God and His exquisite workmanship.
In “Brothers” the younger brother John (Jack) is chosen for a part in a play at the parish hall. During the performance, the older brother Henry watches from off-stage as a spectator, since he has no part in the play. While “roguish” Jack, described also as “brass-bold,” shows no nervousness or hesitation about appearing on stage and acts with perfect confidence, Henry suffers stage fright, bashfulness, and jittery nerves as he watches his brother perform. How do we explain the fact that Henry, who is not even an actor in the play, feels more anxiety about the performance than his daredevil younger brother? It is Henry who blushes and bites his lip, who clutches his hands and clasps his knees, who drops his eyes and dares not look, whereas Jack, “young dog,” awaits his cue with poise and aplomb.
In the opening lines of the poem Hopkins illuminates Henry’s concern about his brother’s performance:
How lovely the elder brother’s
Life all laced in the other’s,
Their relationship is “love-laced,” that is intricately bound and delicately united by the many threads that entwine the hearts of family members together in love. As brothers they are so close, their hearts so interlaced, that the two become one in happiness and in sorrow. When Jack finally makes his appearance on stage, Henry is so thrilled for his brother that he cannot contain his tears of joy, “His tear-trickled cheeks of flame.” Lives that are “love-laced” share many moments of affection and oneness and recall the tender moments and familiar memories of a lifetime. Just as lace reflects the intricate skill of human hands and the beauty of design, so too the human heart reveals the art of God’s handiwork and the wonder of love.
Henry’s heartfelt affection for his younger brother offered Father Hopkins a tell-tale sign, one of “truth’s tokens” that reminded him of the depth of human love and the mystery of the human heart. As Henry watches his brother perform his part, the priest watches Henry’s reactions, “making my play/Turn most on tender byplay.” Two plays or performances occur simultaneously—Jack’s acting on stage that the audience witnesses and Henry’s response that only the priest observes. The priest is so melted by the sight of an older brother’s crying tears of joy for a younger brother’s happiness that the priest too is brought to tears by the “love-laced” intimacy of the brothers’ pure hearts:
Ah Nature, framed in fault,
There’s comfort then, there’s salt;
Nature, bad, base and blind,
Dearly thou canst be kind;
There dearly then, dearly,
I’ll cry thou canst be kind.
Despite the fact of original sin (“Nature, framed in fault”), despite the selfishness and depravity that prevail in the world (“Nature, bad, base and blind”), and despite the callousness, cruelty, and coldness of humans who refuse to give, love, and sacrifice or to be touched or moved by the joys and sufferings of others, God’s love continues to manifest itself in the kindness of the pure heart that bears the stamp of God’s image. Love redeems the world. Despite sin and all its destruction, the preciousness of hearts bound together in “love-laced” oneness constantly remind us of the supreme reality of love that has conquered the world: “There dearly then, dearly, I’ll cry thou canst be kind.”