I’m still reading Hopkins’ poetry and came across a seasonal poem perfect for this week. Autumn came upon us yesterday, and I’ll commemorate the day with this little poem.
Spring and Fall
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
I’m not going to do a full analysis of this, but I’ll give you a little background and orient you since Hopkins’s style obfuscates more than most would like. First the context. This apparently came from a real life occurrence. While Hopkins was assigned as a priest in a parish in Liverpool in the early 1880s, he had duty to travel to a country suburb, Lydiate in Lancanshire, a half hour’s train ride, to serve the small Catholic community there. One small girl, Margaret, from that community was apparently mourning the falling leaves of the autumn season, and so inspired this poem, of which he dedicated it to her. You can see the play on both spring (“sorrow’s spring”) and fall (“Goldengrove unleaving”). But “fall” has further significance. What the narrator tells the girl—in the poem at least, I doubt Hopkins actually said this to her—is that her deeper sadness is not just for the leaves but for the passing of men, which the leaves symbolize, and that ultimately the sadness is for her eventual passing. The fall is linked to the fall from Eden from which mortality began. And so we have an innocent young girl—I picture her about eight years old—who learns of the passing of nature, the passing of mankind, and of her mortality.
There are some really fine lines to appreciate. I particularly like this couplet: “Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed/What heart heard of, ghost guessed.” I love all the alliterations in that sentence, despite the typical Hopkins tongue-tying fashion. And how lovely is “By and by, nor spare a sigh/Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”? I can’t find any definition for “wanwood.” Perhaps it’s a local slang or a Hopkins coinage. It has a melancholy sound to it, perhaps suggesting wood that is wan, that is, weak or feeble.
What I don’t care for in the poem are the accents Hopkins places on certain words. First, I don’t think they really alter any word he accents. I would have stressed those words whether Hopkins accented them or not. Second, I find accenting in English particularly annoying. Though it doesn’t happen in this poem, altering the language stress to fit a poetic objective seems awkward. I prefer to let the language run naturally. The one place where the accent does seem to serve a minor purpose here is on the last syllable of Margaret. It emphasizes the “ret” sound which couples nicely with the “And yet” of the ninth line. It is said that Hopkins is a proto-modernist, but the use of accentuation for me places him closer to the Victorian poets of his own day, who also played around with accenting, and not with the modernist.
Still, it’s a lovely poem.