Spring and Fall
Spring and Fall
The Later Poetic Manuscripts of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Facsimile, ed. Norman H. MacKenzie (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1991): 217. PR 4803 H44A6 1991 Robarts Library
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
A little girl named Margaret cries over the lovely golden leaves of the autumn forest, all fallen to the ground; and she asks the speaker why they are shed. Like many children, she gets upset easily when things are not as she would have them and is ever full of questions for explanations. She willfully cries and cries, insisting, the speaker says, on knowing "why" (9). Parents and teachers usually answer these questions patiently, sympathetically. Leaves fall because of the seasons. It is just "Spring and Fall" and the leaves will come back next year, so that there is no reason to cry, is there? This speaker, unlike older people who talk down to children in a well-meaning, comforting way, does not tell her that she cries without cause. He does not bring comfort; he tries not to treat her as a child at all. Although we may not be meant to know who the speaker is, we all do because Hopkins signed his name to the poem. Of course he was a Catholic priest who routinely took confessions and gave absolution, baptized and pronounced the last rites, administered mass and marriage, and above all taught his parishioners about life in the context of God's eternity. Margaret came to the wrong person if she hoped for sympathy. She received a lesson instead.
"Spring and Fall" is not about the seasons, or even necessarily just about one of the Golden Groves in Wales. The stately Flintshire house rests in a glorious forest of great trees. The Carmarthen place suits the prayer book that Bishop Jeremy Taylor, its owner, published in 1655 and from which Hopkins may have remembered hints at what the poem does concern. The Spring of the poem's title is the source of all tears, "Sorrow's springs" (11), and that source is the "Fall" of Man: original sin and the punishments meted out to Adam, Eve, and their descendents for their eating of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "Goldengrove unleaving" is the world infected with "the blight man was born for" (14); it is, as John Milton said, "paradise lost." All sorrows, whether for leaves or "the things of man" (3), have their origin in that primal event described in Genesis and, according to the New Testament, paid for by God's son Jesus at his crucifixion and death. The seasons run parallel to the life and death of every man. They result from the same blanket, divinely ordained curse pronounced on Adam and Eve in Eden by which everything in the human world suffered. Hopkins uses the term "blight" for its associations with a disease afflicting crops and the natural world for this reason.
Hearing Margaret's heartfelt grief at the fallen leaves, and taking her plea for an explanation seriously, Hopkins' speaker tells her of a calamity that, over time, will inure her to all other losses. "It is Margaret," herself cursed, whom she mourns for. All "sights," even were they to encompass entire "worlds," fade into insignificance in comparison to what humanity intuits but never explicitly verbalizes or even conceptualizes. "What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed", is something felt as an emotion and sensed as a spirit or soul, because the soul, unlike the body, was thought immortal, generated by God from a world very unlike our own. The proper name "Margaret" means a pearl, which is symbolically the New Testament's pearl of great price, that is, the soul. Margaret grieves because of an intuition that comes naturally to someone named as she is.
Though having just one line more than a sonnet, Hopkins' "Spring and Fall" draws on two poetic forms from very different traditions: children's sing-song, and the four-stress Old English alliterating line. The six double rhymes (1-6, 10-15), of which the second is a weakly-stressed syllable (except at 10-11), give the verse a lilting, singable character, not unlike nursery rhymes. For example, the last couplet, "born for" and "mourn for" (14-15), imposes on the somber thought a music found usually in light verse, not ode, elegy, or complaint. The one triplet, at lines 7-9 (which marks a transition between Margaret's problem and its explanation), features internal rhymes on "sights" and "sigh," "by" and "sigh", and "Though" and "know", that together enhance this child-like easiness. Simple idioms like "can you?" (4), "the heart grows older" (5), "By & by" (7), and "no matter" (10) belong to a poem addressed, like any nursery rhyme, to a "child" (10) who may be crying.
Old English prosody builds on a line with two two-stress half-lines of indeterminate length (that is, the number of syllables is not fixed) in which the stressed terms alliterate. Here, stresses in lines 1-2 and 13 fall on "g"-words, lines 4 and 6 on "c"-words, lines 8-9 on "w"-words, lines 7 and 11 on "s"-words, and so on. This technique influenced Hopkins' conception of "sprung rhythm" and explains why he placed stress marks on some words, such as "will" in line 9. Note how Hopkins' lines have a caesural pause in their middle: this break turns them into paired half-lines. His use of compound words in "wanwood leafmeal", termed "kennings" in Old English, also harks back to its poetics; and so do words lacking determiners in lines 12-13, "mouth", "mind", "heart", and "ghost." Prosodic effects like these estrange his writing from modern speech and lend it a staccato, urgent energy that goes lacking in much Victorian poetry.
The title "Spring and Fall" nicely conveys the metrical effects Hopkins achieves in yoking Old English two-stress half-lines with double rhymes ending on weak syllables.
Finally, although Hopkins may have had little use for syllable-counting in his theory of sprung rhythm, he clearly employs variations in line-length to good effect here. The poem breaks into two parts, the speaker's recognition of Margaret's grief at lines 1-8, and his explanation for that sorrow at lines 9-15. The first eight lines consist of four sentences, each with two lines, a couplet, having 7 and then 8 syllables. The pattern is a regular 7, 8, 7, 8, 7, 8, 7, and 8 syllables. Three of these couplets also close with strong terminal punctuation on the second line, the one with 8 syllables. The final seven lines follow a more disordered pattern, with 8, 7, 6, 8, 6, 8, and 8 syllables. This irregularity expresses the strong feelings of the speaker. Note that in every instance the 8-syllable lines convey the tenets that he teaches. Like stressed alliterative verse, line-lengths communicate the drama of thought and feeling in the speaker's mind.
Hopkins' sonnets, alternately the bleakest ("No worst, there is none") and most exalting ("God's Grandeur") in English, sometimes give vent to his frustration as a poet whose writings went unpublished and unrecognized in his lifetime. If he remembered Taylor's "The Golden Grove," the collection of prayers, "Spring and Fall" may have had a private meaning for Hopkins. The word "leaves" connotes "pages" too. The poem's second last couplet, "Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed" (12-13), expresses deep skepticism about whether human language and thought can tell us what we too need to know. Margaret's "fresh thoughts", caring for "Leaves, like the things of man" (3-4), will give way to a heart that intuits what cannot be put into words. If the "unleaving" of Goldengrove connotes the loss of poetry, possibly that does not matter much.
- Driscoll, John P. "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child." Explicator
- Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. Catherine Phillips. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Louise, Sister Robert. "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child." Explicator
- Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. HarperCollins.
- McChesney, Donald. A Hopkins Commentary: An Explanatory Commentary on the Main Poems, 1876-89. University of London Press.
- White, Norman. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.