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All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

One of my writer, teacher, kindred-spirit friends, Lisa, reminded me, after my post about the inspiration to be found in ordinary things, that we must not forget the beauty of those things "counter, original, spare, strange;," as Gerard Manley Hopkins gorgeously expressed in "Pied Beauty," which has long been one of my favorite Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.



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:

                                Praise him.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"



It's nearly impossible to look at our mottled cat, May, who is half Siamese (the Siamese influence discernible only in her talkativeness) and half "dilute tortoiseshell," and not notice how unusual she looks. I sometimes make our daughters laugh by quoting, grandiosely, "Glory be to God for dappled things," while gesturing towards our multi-toned May, who generally blinks up at me, nonplussed, unable to get behind my application of Hopkins.


But in seriousness, I find spiritual sustenance in Hopkins' admiration for things that are unusual, speckled, mottled, idiosyncratic. I share this appreciation, not only for objects that are outside of the uniform mold, but also for humans who are quirky, eccentric, utterly original. Especially when they are unafraid and unashamed to be so.


This tendency to ascribe particular value to the unconventional, the nonuniform, the "brindled," the “freckled," reminds me of John Ruskin's insistence that we see art and beauty in imperfection. Ruskin, leading Victorian English art critic, artist, philanthropist and social thinker, extolled the inherently noble quality of imperfect objects. He felt these imperfect objects were more aesthetically pleasing than their perfect, factory-produced counterparts. Ruskin of course was asserting these convictions at a time when the Industrial Revolution had transformed Great Britain (and America) with its rush of mass production. Ruskin believed this mass production was to the detriment not only of the artistic quality of the objects: that uniformity and "perfection" was leaving them soulless, but his social conscience objected to the mind-numbing work required to produce such unending perfection. The glass bead creator, for instance, he considered to be in servitude to the drudgery of producing perfect glass beads so monotonously as to leave no room for the exercise of the mind. This rendered the glass bead maker nothing short of a slave. Far more worthy and precious is the handiwork of a careful craftsman who might produce something slightly misshapen, an object perhaps ever so slightly odd, "counter...spare, strange," but something created authentically, by hand, with nobleness of effort.


The intrinsic, higher nobility of careful, bespoke craftsmanship has always seemed intuitive to me, has always rung true. And I hold a special affinity for Ruskin due to many pleasant wanderings past his thatched roof cottage when I lived in Botley, Oxford. Down a pretty, winding road with a lovely ancient English church and graveyard, can be found Ruskin's cottage in North Hinksey. And on several sunny afternoons and early evenings I walked past and reflected that here Ruskin lived and thought. I remember the lane lined with nettles. The feeling of peace and of being time out of time.


From both Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Ruskin, contemporaries excelling in two distinct but sympathetic fields, two chief ideas emerge: the glory of the original, the imperfect, the idiosyncratic. And the beauty of the handmade, bespoke, work of the human hand and mind.


Ruskin's Cottage in North Hinksey, England


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

The brindled

The freckled



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