“Quick to Observe”: Or, Desultory Thoughts on Seeing and Learning

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s much-loved “Pied Beauty” (a “curtal sonnet” composed in 1877) fits the season, as spring begins to arrest our attention:

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.

Poems that underscore the joy of inspired, grateful observation have me pondering certain values of the Humanities (and of higher education generally) that, if not quite “past change,” do continue to matter profoundly regardless of situation. They are truisms, yet they need professing from time to time.

Education is calculated to develop dispositions as well as skills and knowledge. As John Henry Newman (one of Hopkins’s mentors) put it in The Idea of University, it aims at “something intellectual, something which grasps that which it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea.” Several elements of this quotation deserve elaborating, but I begin with Newman’s insistent repetition of terms of perception: “grasps,” “perceives,” “takes a view,” “sees” (x 3). He emphasizes vision, even as he describes it in metaphysical terms: sight involves reasoning, judgement, creativity, and so forth. I would suggest that most academic disciplines, and Humanities disciplines in particular, share a concern with, and love for, seeing things. They develop in students the capacity to see more, to see more carefully, and with enhanced appreciation. Such capacity has little to do with eyesight but much to do with a soul that’s alert. My title, therefore, “Quick to Observe,” calls attention to the intellectual and spiritual power in various kinds of educated observation. If seeing is a mental action and a habit essential to all learning, it is also, ultimately, a theological concept and a practical religious necessity.

Observation as grateful attention

Part of the joy of Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” with its explosion of sounds and images, is its celebration of the world’s dynamic strangeness and variety—its insistence on praising God for things that are wonderfully odd as well as those that are conventionally beautiful, and its reminder that God’s fingerprints will show up in unexpected places if we are paying attention.

Another text that sets me thinking about this subject is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. In a chapter called “Seeing,” Dillard writes of a compulsion that seized her as a child: she would hide pennies along the street, perhaps by a tree or in a hole in the sidewalk. Then, she would take a big piece of chalk and draw arrows pointing passersby to the hiding place, along with messages like “SURPRISE AHEAD” or “MONEY THIS WAY.” It was all for the joy of imagining someone finding her penny, an unlooked-for treasure like “a free gift from the universe.” Dillard writes, “There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” That’s a beautiful thought, and it rings true. But—and this is the point, Dillard says— “Who gets excited by a mere penny?” Do such little things stir us? Plenty of people can’t be bothered to pick up pennies. It seems clear that we have to cultivate a habit of observing and more, a willingness to be delighted by what we find. (“What doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift?”) We encounter lovely things all the time, but they are easy to miss or devalue when we get tired, flat, or cynical. We may have eyes, but see not, ears, but hear not.

Observation empowered by knowledge

What equips us to see and hear? One answer is that knowledge lets us perceive things. For example, I see birds. As I walk or drive, broad wings and a swoop of rust color show me a red-tailed hawk, or a hovering flutter shows me a kestrel, falco sparverius. I see them because my eye is trained to some extent: I’ve been on the lookout for these birds of prey since I was a boy. I used to study my Audubon field guide, and I even volunteered at my community’s aviary so that I could be around the raptors and learn from the resident falconer. However, I know that I don’t see birds as ornithologists do. Some of my friends can see plants. I don’t know about grasses or shrubs, so even when I notice them, most of their language is incomprehensible to me. I like to go hiking with a friend who knows wildflowers, since I know the names of only a few. Some people hear things in music that I can’t hear, and I imagine that composers hear differently from singers and instrumentalists. But I’m talking about more than knowledge—I’m also talking about love. There’s a kind of knowledge that has love mixed in it.

Love, built on learning and persistence, quickens observation, and being quick to observe is important in whatever field you pursue. Because I love and teach literature, I read with particular kinds of awareness. For instance, I notice how writers talk with each other across time. I am far more likely to spot allusions in their work—far less likely to need help from editors’ footnotes—than I was as a beginner. My colleagues, I’m sure, will report the same, and they, too, often perceive connections between texts even when these aren’t explicit. For instance, when reading Dillard’s words about “pennies dropped by a generous hand,” I suspect that more than one of my friends spotted an oblique allusion to Walt Whitman’s Song as Myself (from Leaves of Grass):

A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands….

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name somewhat in the corners, that we may see and remark,

and say Whose?

When we pick up God’s pennies and handkerchiefs, we should ask, “Whose is this image and superscription?” Of course, somewhere behind both of those texts, and quite directly behind the Hopkins poem I began with, lies the inspired poetry of the Psalms, as in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.”

Clearly the principle of love and knowledge heightening vision applies to sacred literature as well as secular (if that distinction even makes sense in this context). You have a revelatory moment during your scripture study: while reading one prophet’s words, you suddenly realize that he is quoting and riffing on another prophet’s writings. Layers unfold. The Holy Spirit brings your realization home, fusing what you thought were distinct pieces of knowledge—something you read one day, and something you read on another—into a deeper, more meaningful whole. But this experience happens only if you have acquired the requisite knowledge in advance. The scripture writers often don’t announce that they are quoting. Most of the time, readers are just expected to appreciate the references. This kind of experience must be part of what Joseph Smith had in mind when he said of the Bible, “He who reads it oftenest will like it best.” [1] There’s a lot of joy in perceiving what a prophet is after, in really being included in his “Thus we see.”

Observation as seeing others

The principle of love mixed with knowledge also applies to studying people. Might we study them with the same diligence and affection we apply to developing a lexicon for nature, or for literature? Years ago, I was struck by Harold B. Lee’s commentary on the Beatitudes. Responding to “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” he remarked, “Only if you are the pure in heart will you see God, and also in a lesser degree will you be able to see the ‘God’ or good in man and love him because of the goodness you see in him.” Becoming holy involves coming to see others’ holiness. Stephen L. Richards called this “the highest type of discernment”; it is part of knowing as we are known, and it gives us real grounds for joy. This discernment, like all forms of love and knowledge, is a spiritual gift; and, like all spiritual gifts, it must be cultivated.

Recording and profiting from observations

As many readers will realize, the title of this blog post, “Quick to Observe,” comes from the Book of Mormon. An aged prophet named Ammaron approaches Mormon, who is only a boy at the time, and says, “I perceive that thou art a sober child, and art quick to observe.” He then gives the boy a charge to watch and write about the affairs of the people. This exchange suggests that developing a writing habit makes you a better observer. In Mormon’s case, knowing that he was going to have a monumental writing task made him attend closely to what was going on around him. Probably he practiced writing the whole time as he grew to adulthood. Thus we see an argument for cultivating the life of writing, whether academic, creative, sacred, or personal. Certainly, we see an argument for keeping better journals. Journaling has its intrinsic rewards, immediately felt. It helps us process experience and invites us to observe more. It helps make our observation an act of devotion.

Concluding observations

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. Watson is forever befuddled by Sherlock Holmes’ brilliance. “Holmes,” he says in one story, “you see everything!” The detective replies, “I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.” On another occasion Holmes says, “You see, Watson, but you do not observe.” Watson sees, but he doesn’t consistently notice what is important; he doesn’t always profit from what he sees.

To be sure, though the earth is charged with the grandeur of God, some of what we see may confuse and sadden us. While I’ve talked about flowers and birds and enlivening smells, nature itself is full of shocking, horrible things, when considered from a certain point of view. And we don’t have to look far to find ugliness in humans either. We feel this especially in wartime, when stress breeds selfishness, when political anger becomes a dominant social impulse—we feel it, in other words, at this moment. However, such ugliness does not make the beauty in the world less real or less worth observing. On the contrary. Christ, who sees both the beauty and the ugliness (and weeps over unnecessary human suffering), also dwells in joy. He observes the endless warrants for it continually.

This post was written by Paul Westover, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.


[1] The full quotation advocates observing the world as well as the Bible: “he that can mark the power of Omnipotence inscribed upon the heavens, can also see His own hand-writing in the sacred volume; and he who reads it oftenest will like it best, and he who is acquainted with it, will know the hand wherever he can see it” (https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-the-church-circa-march-1834/1).

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