Friday, 5 March 2010

Spring and Fall - Gerard Manley Hopkins

What is it with me and religious poetry? I am pretty atheistic: I once shocked my mother in law by suggesting that the law should accord religion no more respect or protection than other superstitions such as astrology. But I hold a special place in my heart for fine religious verse.


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 & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


A young child is sad at the sight of the leaves falling in Autumn. The poet reflects on her sadness. At the moment, she is young enough to give the same weight of sadness to falling leaves as she does to things affecting people. As she grows older, she will experience sadness of a more personal nature and will no longer feel sorrow at falling leaves even if she sees the leaves of whole forests lying on the ground. As she grows older she will also feel that she is more able to analyse the causes of her own sadness. However, the poet suggests that this rational analysis will be faulty: the true source of all human sadness is that humans are born with original sin and are mortal. All of her present and future sadness is, in reality, a mourning for herself.


What I love about this poem is that it seems to proceed by ordered analysis to a definite ending:

It is the sorrow man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for

The double rhyme emphasises the finality of this intellectual conclusion. You might say that it echoes the apparent finality of death.

But throughout the poem there are clues that this is not the end at all. First of all, look at the title: "Spring and Fall". Nothing in the poem mentions "spring" at all and yet it is so central to the poem as to be included in the title. The subliminal message here is that for every autumn, there has to be a spring. A little smattering of Christian doctrine and you realise that the point here is not just one about the changing of the seasons. Rather the point is that for every "fall of man" there has to be a "spring" (a redemption by Christ's dying on the cross). Even through Christ died on the cross he was reborn and even though humans appear to die, they will live for ever in the afterlife. That is the hidden message of the poem.

Wordplay also hints at this conclusion elsewhere. Take the word "unleaving" in Line 2. That appears to mean "the act of leaves falling from a tree". But "leaving" can also mean "departing" and if you "undepart", you "arrive". So when Goldengrove "unleaves" it is simultaneously in the act of being reborn.

So I think that the message of the poem is that the apparent conclusion is a purely intellectual conclusion and not the true spiritual conclusion (i.e. the conclusion that "ghost guessed"). Even if the mind is gloomily reflecting on original sin and mortality, the heart knows that tehre is a rebirth that is yet to be experienced.