Friday, August 28, 2009

Pied Reality

'Pied Beauty' by Gerard Manley Hopkins is number 727 in the New Oxford Book of English Verse. It is a hymn to all things pied - pied meaning coloured alternately in large areas, as the Texas Paint horse is red and white.
The Pied Piper, for example, is so-called because:
"His queer long coat from heel to head,
Was half of yellow and half of red".

'Pied Beauty' is a fine example of the 'sprung rhythm' of that counter, original, spare, strange poet. Also distinctive of Hopkins, it is a flawed masterpiece.

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 all trades, 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.

I much admire Hopkins' poem, but I doubt couple-colours always glorify a creator, as he thought.

Consider the Pied Corvids.
I have a visceral loathing of magpies. It runs in the family: my father taught it me; my cousin has it even worse than I do.

Pica pica, the European magpie. Handsome birds, pied black and white, with a long tail. In Shakespeare they are simply pies, the mag came later.
Pica is the Latin name, probably sharing a derivation with the Greek κισσα or κιττα.
So my loathing might be dismissed as kissaphobia, but I would protest. A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike; my aversion to magpies has rational roots.

Magpies raid the nests of other birds: they are egg-thieves. That's bad enough, but pecking the eyes of nestlings is the habit which condemns them. No-one can forgive magpies after seeing a blood-stained robin's nest of cold, dead, eyeless nestlings; or worse, bleeding, squirming nestlings, still alive.
"Cruel", my father would say; "Cruel, that's what they are; they peck but don't eat; they are wicked".

Regrettably, magpies are now multiplying in suburban gardens, including mine, scavenging waste or taking food put out for other birds. This is very bad news for the song-birds and the other welcome visitors to our gardens.
It's time to get a magpie trap - a simple wire cage with a trap-door. Put in a mirror, because magpies are attracted to their own reflection. Then remember the nestlings, put on leather gloves [they are vicious peckers], kill instantly by a sharp twist and pull to the neck; show them what mercy is.

Theses thoughts come after my visit to Wisley Gardens yesterday. My reverie in the Pinetum was disturbed by the devilish chuckles of a pair of magpies, strutting amid a mass of dwarf Cyclamen, in glorious flower under the trees. It was as if a cloud had darkened the sun.
Et in Arcadia ego.

Pica is the medical term for depraved appetite - eating dirt, or stones, or other items. It is said to be named for the magpie's omnivory. I recall a young pregnant woman who caused alarm by sucking pieces of coal [she came to no harm]. Then there was the elderly man referred from the psychiatric hospital because he had lost weight. He had a large hard mass in the abdomen. At endoscopy the stomach was full of stones. They had to be removed surgically.
A colleague had an endoscopic picture from another patient. Among the coins, bits of twig, a key and other things was a fresh packet of Rizla cigarette papers.
That's pica, but I digress. I have another example.

Orcinus orca, the killer whale, is another black and white pied predator with a vicious, cruel nature. Two video sequences from the BBC Natural History Unit come to mind.
The first follows a pod of Orcas hunting the calf of a Grey Whale, off the coast of California. Relentlessly they harass mother and calf, trying to separate them. Eventually the exhausted, bitten calf can swim no more. The pod go into a feeding frenzy, tearing out the tongue of the calf, leaving the rest of the carcass to sink into the depths.
The second is the stuff of nightmare. Sea-lion cubs are playing in the surf. Suddenly a huge black and white shape surges up the beach, seizes a cub, then shuffles back into deeper water. Out in the bay, the cub becomes a toy, still alive. The Orca uses its tail to bat the cub high in the air. When it falls back its tormenter hunts it down and repeats the game. Eventually, I suppose, the cub is eaten, a release from this horrifying ordeal. Extraordinary behaviour; unpardonable cruelty.

Those who argue that altruism proves the existence of God must also justify cruelty: the ugliest of vices, in man and nature.


Michael Gilleland said...

Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray (1860): "I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."

David said...

My Latin dictionary--and Webster's Third International--derive "pied" from the Latin for "woodpecker". In any case, I found myself rubbing my eyes and looking again for a magpie in Hopkins' poem--but in vain. To say that the word constitutes a flaw in the poem is tantamount to pronouncing the _Oedipos Tyrannos_ "a flawed masterpiece" because Stalin was a tyrant. As for what Hopkins "thought", I defer to the English physician. On the other hand, what Hopkins _wrote_ remains a masterpiece, and unflawed.