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Spring and Fall
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 wíll 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.
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.
This week, we’re back in the company of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Scott Webster will read Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall,” and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Scott.
I thought this poem was the perfect choice for this time of year, when the leaves are falling from the trees, and we are feeling winter in the air.
Hopkins addresses “Spring and Fall” “to a young child,” a girl named Margaret. We don’t know if Margaret was a real person – it doesn’t really matter. We do know that she is a child, and that as the poem begins she is weeping because the leaves are falling.
In this poem, Hopkins’ wonderfully distinctive voice and language are on display. “Margaret, are you grieving / over Goldengrove unleaving?”  The natural world is never generic in Hopkins’ poetry. A few weeks ago, we read Hopkins’ poem “Binsey Poplars,” and we talked about “inscape,” Hopkins’ word for the unique and unrepeatable individuality of everything—not just people, but animals, trees and even landscapes. In this poem, the woods are given a name, “Goldengrove.” It’s a coinage of Hopkins, one of several in this poem, and it could describe any beautiful forest in the fall. But “Goldengrove” is capitalized, giving it the individuality of a name. Clearly, these woods have an “inscape,” to which the child is responding.
Hopkins marvels that a child like Margaret can be sad because of the “unleaving” of the trees. He asks, “leaves like the things of man, you / with your fresh thoughts care for, can you?” How is it she can care so much for the natural world, he wonders, at her young age?  And yet, he knows that “as the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder.” Most adults never “spare a sigh” to grieve, “though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” Isn’t this a fantastic description of the world at this time of year – “worlds of wanwood,” countless leaves, lying “leafmeal”—still another coinage, but we know exactly what Hopkins is talking about.
In the second half of the poem, Hopkins does not answer Margaret’s question, “why.” Instead, he answers his own question of why the child cares, why she weeps at the falling of the leaves. “Now no matter, child, the name: / Sorrow’s springs are the same. / Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed.” Margaret’s sorrow, Hopkins muses, comes from the source of all sorrow. It is not something Margaret could express aloud or articulate to herself. But the heart and the “ghost,” the spirit within her, know the answer: “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.” Margaret weeps for Margaret: the falling of the leaves is the annual reminder that she will also die one day.  Margaret is the spring; but autumn will come. Most of the poem is quite intricate in its diction, especially with the playful coinages so typical of Hopkins. But that last line is simple and direct: “It is Margaret you mourn for.” The straightforward language intensifies the impact of the realization that she, too, will die.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was far from the first to compare the falling of the leaves to the passing away of generations. In fact, one critic has written: “The simile is quite likely the oldest readily identifiable poetic artifice in European literature.” Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton—all of these poets used the image of leaves in the fall to suggest the numberless dead. In the Iliad, we read:
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.   (II. 6.146-49)
In this short poem, Hopkins takes a classic, even a hackneyed image, and breathes new life into it. Viewing the change in seasons through the eyes of a child, Hopkins does not see a generic forest shedding its leaves, but a unique and wonderful place—“Goldengrove unleaving.” And it is not merely faceless generations that come and go; it is an individual, Margaret, who, without fully understanding it, feels and knows that what happens to the leaves will one day happen to her—to each of us. This is the destiny we have in common with all who have ever lived, and yet it still has power to shake us:  “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).



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