The harmony of contrasts is a leading theme in the aesthetics of nature and of the arts. Watch the harmonies unfold in this 1877 poem by English poet and Roman Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins.
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:
The poem gives glory to God for dappled things in nature and in human artifacts. There is nothing artificial or dramatic about the chosen theme: dappled things are common, everyday things, and we are invited to take notice and delight.
We get a burst of Hopkins’s characteristic innovative language, combining meanings densely, without obvious literal sense, though a cluster of images: “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”—embers of freshly fallen chestnuts in a fire.
For all the gentle peacefulness of the tone, the range of the kinds of things indicated is remarkably broad: a natural element, the sky; living things; the humanly worked landscape; equipment; humans themselves; and contrasting pairs of general properties. The concluding contrasts embrace all creatures (swift, slow), and the full range of human experience (from adazzle to dim).
A relaxed unknowing (“Who knows how?”) and the juxtaposition, “adazzle, dim,” prepare the culminating vision, not only by the introductory phrase, “Glory be to God,” but more especially by the qualities portrayed in what we can perceive. All is bathed in observant delight and warm appreciation.
The type of beauty first in view, “pied beauty,” is not ideal perfection, but the loosely patterned contrasts of our world. God is not dappled, however, so there remains a final contrast between the beauty of God and created beauty.
A gentle ethical touch of generous appreciation covers “whatever is fickle.” In most contexts, fickleness is a foible. It is not yet a vice, since fickleness is situated in an acceptable region of a spectrum whose extreme is indecision, inconstancy, default, and betrayal. The embrace of the fickle expresses the unselfconsciously merciful attitude of a person caught up in a gracious and humanly divine way of seeing.
The last two lines shift the level of focus to the Creator, mentioned at the outset, now described expressively: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” Although the thought of beauty “past change” might recall Plato’s idea of eternal beauty, the innovative verb, “fathers-forth,” evokes creative process. Although the last line is an imperative, grammatically speaking, it is more an invitation than a command; it is a natural and spontaneous culmination of the experience through which the poet has led us this far: “Praise him.”