Spring and Fall
To a Young Child
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Analysed by Robert Nisbet and Read by Chris Williams
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as 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;
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Click HERE for Chris's reading.
Hopkins' poem has a subject which is both simple and yet deeply profound. The poem catches us with the realization of what is both fundamental and yet always known. The observed child is weeping and she weeps, quite simply, for her own and our own mortality.
Appropriately, Hopkins' vehicle for carrying this simple little profundity is itself deceptively simple and is charged with all manner of subtlety. For on the surface we seem to have an elegant short poem whose rhymes chime so neatly and which fits so well into the compass of 15 quatrameters. The lines are often not quatrameters though and so much else shifts so delicately in the poem's short compass.
The first couplet is sudden and vivid, a brisk apostrophe to the mysterious Margaret. The two proper nouns personalize the poem, but where in fact is Goldengrove? Hopkins' time in Wales was in North Wales, so this is hardly Carmarthenshire's Gelli Aur. Nevertheless, the name is obviously just right for a poem set in autumn (or "fall") - a real serendipity.
In line 2, also, we get "unleaving". My dictionary doesn't recognize the word, any more than it does "wanwood" and "leafmeal", but Hopkins was, after Shakespeare, one of English poetry's great word-coiners, and I think all three coinages work perfectly here.
The poem is given tremendous compactness, a real inner crackle and energy, by the very exact rhymes, often double rhymes, which end its very short lines. Often, as in "grieving/unleaving" or "born for/mourn for" the poet avoids heavy-handedness by making the double rhyme a feminine one with the stress falling on the penultimate syllable.
For all that, the effect of strong and often double rhyming in paired 8-syllable lines could have made for a real jingle, but the rhythm of 'Spring and Fall' is its main delight. In lines 5 and 6 we seem to have, for just a moment, a strong firm couplet rhyming on "older" and "colder". Immediately line 7 takes us on with its hastening "By and by" and the rhythm has changed. "By and by" is echoed at once by an internal thyme on "by" and "sigh", before the rhyme continues through the poem's one triple rhyme: "sigh/lie/why".
And, for all that rhyming, one of the main forces for cohesion and compactness within the poem is its alliteration, rising to real energy in the later lines, each of which has its own miniature pattern:
"Sorrow's ... same";
"mouth ... mind"
"heart heard of, ghost guessed";
"blight ... born";
"Margaret ... mourn".
In the BBC poll of a year or two ago I voted for this as my favourite poem. I think I was alone in that choice!