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G.M.Hopkins on Beauty

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I enjoy the poetry of Hopkins and in my books and essays have often drawn upon his notion of Inscape as well as the transcendence he sees in nature. Recently Stephen Wood sent me two essays he had written on Hopkins and the notion of beauty. He has kindly allowed me to post them here.

A Chestnut Leaf
Stephen Wood

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who observed and reflected deeply on the world of Nature. His diary contains descriptions of clouds and sunsets, birds and flowers, and all variety of trees. His essays and letters show how intelligently he engaged with the vision of the living world presented by Darwin’s new theory of evolution. He took great delight in the details of the world around him, in the best spirit of a Victorian naturalist.

Here is a wonderful passage from his early diaries describing lapwings, birds also known by their cry: ‘Peewits wheeling and tumbling, just as they are said to do, as if with a broken wing. They pronounce peewit pretty distinctly, sometimes querulously, with a slight metallic tone like a bat’s cry. Their wings are not pointed, to the eye, when flying, but broad, white and of a black or reddish purple apparently.’ We can see a
naturalist’s eye for detail combined with a poet’s economy of phrase. He practices the same art of precision in his descriptions of nature that he would in his choice of words for his poems.

In a letter written to Baillie, who was at Oxford with the poet, Hopkins explains how he had been out sketching a good deal. He talks of his sketches of ashes, mentioning Ruskin, who exhorted artists to a faithful attention to small details (this we can see also in the above entry on lapwings). He describes his passion for Nature, blending artist with naturalist. ‘I have particular periods of admiration for particular things in Nature; for a certain time I am astonished at the beauty of a tree, shape, effect, etc. then when the passion, so to speak, has subsided, it is consigned to my treasury of explored beauty, and acknowledged with admiration and interest ever after.’ Most fundamentally, natural beauty is the beauty of particular things. A few years later, Hopkins would coin his famous word, inscape, to express the power that holds the special and particular identity of a thing.

One of Hopkins famous poems, ‘Pied Beauty,’ benefits from the many observations of nature that he recorded in his diaries. The delight in nature’s difference and variety is clearly expressed in dazzling word painting. The rhythm is Hopkins’ own, which he called sprung rhythm. The number of stressed syllables follows a regular pattern, but the number of unstressed syllables varies. This breaks the poem out of the usual de-dum de-dum de-dum pattern into a much more natural one. The sound flows like a bubbling brook, swirling around stones and breaking into eddies, rising, falling, but always moving on. ‘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 . .’ Hopkins glories in Nature’s ‘skeined stained veined variety’—and how that multitudinous variety springs forth from the simplicity and oneness of God. ‘Pied Beauty’ is one of Hopkins’ ‘bright’ sonnets, composed in a joyful period of his life at the beautiful St. Beuno's College, in North Wales. Walking to the nearby Rock Chapel, he had to cross open meadows to reach the quiet refuge. One can imagine him casting his eye from earth to heaven, from cows in the field to clouds in the sky. Taking in the contrast of brown and white, and blue and white, we can feel his joy in the dappled pattern of Nature. The poem does not leave things in their various particularities. Not only is there a pied beauty in the relation of Creator to his Creation, but the things of earth also retain this piedness within and among themselves: ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange...’ In the strange beauty and beautiful strangeness of Nature, the oddness of things surprises us in its contrast to what is ordinary about them.

‘Pied Beauty’ is an expression of ideas Hopkins had originally considered in his undergraduate essays, specifically On the Nature of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue. The dialogue takes place in the gardens of New College, Oxford, between the Professor of the newly founded chair of Aesthetics and the young John Hanbury, a scholar of the college. To kick-off the discussion, the Professor pulls a large fan of leaves from a horse chestnut tree. ‘You see it consists of seven leaves, the middle largest, diminishing towards the stalk, so that those nearest the stalk are smallest.’ Hanbury had never noticed there were seven leaves in a chestnut fan. But the Professor immediately pulls off another fan, this time with six leaves. ‘Nature is irregular in these things’ he comments, before asking the all-important question: ‘Now which do you think the more beautiful, the one with six, or the one with seven, leaves?’ Hanbury replies: ‘Well I daresay the six-leaved one may improve the foliage by variety, but in themselves the seven-leaved one is the handsomer.’ The Professor quizzes the young scholar, as to the source of his admiration. It cannot be that seven is more perfect a number than six, or that it is an odd number. The six-leaved fan divides more easily in two, so would appear to be the more symmetrical. ‘And so you judge the less markedly symmetrical to be the handsomer. Still the seven-leaved one has much symmetry.’ The Professor concludes that the presence of symmetry together with asymmetry calls forth our admiration.

Imagine an encyclopaedia of Life that simply listed all the species in alphabetical order, rather like a telephone directory. It is rather difficult to imagine that such a book would be a success with readers! We do not find such a book; instead, an encyclopaedia of living things is arranged by some system, traditionally a system of classification or, more common these days, by habitat and lifestyle. But—imagine a world where it were not possible to create any system at all. Living things could all be the same, all individuals of a single super-organism adapted to all the environments that the world could present to it. Such a world
would be tedious in its uniformity and would certainly not inspire fascination or a sense of beauty. We could, on the other hand, be bewildered by an infinite variety of organisms, each unique and completely different from every other. This might fascinate us for a while, but it would be exhausting in the end. For the mind craves some kind of unity, some guiding principles underlying the confusion of the world. What seems to strike us as beautiful is this combination of unity and diversity. Each fan of the horse chestnut tree has that quality of unity and diversity that we find so appealing. Beauty is likeness and unlikeness.

For Hopkins, clouds and skies were as beautiful as living things. Indeed he refers to ‘skies of couple-colour’ in ‘Pied Beauty’, perhaps recalling a sunset like this one recorded in his journal: ‘Sunset over oaks a dapple of rosy clouds blotted with purple, sky round confused pale green and blue with faint horned rays, crimson sparkles through the leaves below.’ Snowflakes are some of the most beautiful crystals in the world. Wilson Bentley was their greatest photographer, capturing more than five thousand different examples during his lifetime, finding that no two flakes were alike. Students at universities and colleges around the world have studied the photographs he produced, photographs that also entertained readers of many magazines and journals, including Scientific American and National Geographic. Like no one else, Bentley came to know the natural history of snowflakes. Flakes falling at the end of a storm were the most beautiful, the most perfect. It wasn’t worth collecting flakes when the snow was falling in little pellets, however, the flakes would be too irregular. Different winters produced quite different numbers of good crystals, depending on the kinds of snowfall that predominated. Immersed in these particulars, Wilson Bentley saw how every snowflake demonstrates a delicate balance between design and variety. Each snowflake is unique in its details, but all snowflakes have the same six-fold symmetry. In an interview he gave in 1925, he puts it like this: ‘Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.’ Unity and diversity, it seems, lie at the heart of the order of the world, both inanimate and animate.

A Rugged Boldly-Irregular Tree
Stephen Wood

In an early diary entry from his undergraduate days, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the plain that ‘lies on the opposite side to Oxford with villages crowned with square church-towers shining white here and there.’ He finds an original metaphor for the lines of the fields, ‘like threads in a loom’ and, of course, he mentions his beloved trees: ‘Splendid trees—elms, and farther on great elliptic-curve oaks. Bloomy green of larches … Noticed also frequent partings of ash-boughs.’ The image, the inscape, of the oak that Hopkins caught on this day found its way into his essay On the Nature of Beauty. I have already discussed the passage regarding the beauty of the horse chestnut. Here is another extract. ‘Now is the oak an unsymmetrical tree?’ asks the Professor. ‘Very much so;’ replies the young Hanbury, ‘O quite a rugged boldly-irregular tree.’ Having received just the response he was looking for, the Professor responds with a telling observation, springing his trap: ‘Now have you ever noticed that when the oak has grown to its full stature uninfluenced, the outline of its head is drawn by a long curve, I should think it would be that of a parabola, which, if you look at the tree from a little way off, is almost of mathematical correctness?’ To which young Hanbury must agree. ‘Then beauty, you would say perhaps, is a mixture of regularity and irregularity.’

The Professor continues to probe the question further, and summarises the various examples he and Hanbury have discussed as follows: ‘Then the beauty of the oak and the chestnut-fan and the sky is a mixture of likeness and difference or agreement and disagreement or consistency and variety or symmetry and change.’ ‘It seems so yes.’ ‘And if we did not feel the likeness we should not think them so beautiful, or if we did not feel the difference we should not think them so beautiful. The beauty we find is from the comparison we make of things with themselves, seeing their likeness and difference, is it not?’ Beauty is a relationship of similarity and difference, either of one thing to itself or of several things to each other.

Paul Dirac, the English physicist, made a famous statement of the role of beauty in science. ‘It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than have them fit experiment ... It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equation, and if one really has a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress.’ Dirac was in a good position to make such a statement, for he contributed one of the most beautiful insights in the history of physics. He was able to produce a description of the electron that embraced both quantum theory and relativity. In reconciling the formal, mathematical systems of the two theories, he bridged the gap between the sciences of the very small and the very fast. He was also rewarded with a striking prediction: the existence of antimatter. Dirac predicted that there should exist a particle with exactly the same mass as the electron, but with the opposite charge. This particle has now been confirmed and is named the positron. Pairs of electron and positron particles, with their characteristic mass, can emerge from a background of pure energy and annihilate each other, returning to pure energy. Dirac brought into the quantum realm Einstein’s insight of the equivalence of mass and energy.

Beauty in science is most profoundly connected, in the minds of scientists such as Dirac, with formal simplicity and elegance. Formal simplicity means that the theory needs only a small number of clearly related central ideas. Those central ideas are able to embrace complexity and make sense of it. By bringing together quantum physics and relativity and predicting antimatter, Dirac made the two theories clear in a domain that had previously been foreign to both. He extended the range of insight of both theories, the clarity of the insight being demonstrated by the clarity of the prediction that flowed from it. Dirac was not guaranteed the confirmation of his prediction. That he had co-ordinated the insights of two theories, which in their separate domains, had already been so well confirmed by observation, gave him good reason for confidence.

A metaphor underlies Isaac Newton’s insight into universal gravitation, reconciling the earthly and heavenly realms. Dirac found metaphors to link the distinct systems of quantum theory and relativity. The scientific advances that stand out in the imagination are ones, like these two, which involve the unification of previously distinct areas. Such a development captures the element of unity and diversity, of consistency and variety, which we have identified as the hallmark of beauty. Indeed, if we think of the way metaphors work, we can see that this must be so. For two things to be linked by a metaphor, then they must be both sufficiently like one another and unlike. If the two things are too alike, then the metaphor is a commonplace; if they are too unlike then the metaphor is forced and artificial. It would be easy for science to proliferate theories. Whenever a new phenomenon came along, one could develop a new theory to fit it. However, such a science would hold no beauty for us. Good scientific theories are like beautiful stories, which are told to make sense of the world and bring meaning to life.




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