Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins uses a unique rhyme scheme and the concept of nature’s demise as a representation of something much deeper. In this one-stanza work, Hopkins utilizes the reaction of a young girl named Margaret to express a deep-rooted fear that humans carry throughout their lives, expressly that of their own mortality. What seems like a simple account of a girl “grieving” over trees losing their “[l]eaves” as summer months lead into the autumn season is eventually noted to have a much greater meaning. That meaning, as Hopkins notes in the final line of the poem, is that Margaret is “mourn[ing]” the passage of her own life, even though she is not mature enough to grasp the notion.

 

Spring and Fall Analysis

Lines 1-4

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

In this series of lines, Hopkins delivers the basic factors of the poem’s setting. Margaret, who is noted as a young person when the narrator references her contemplations as “fresh thoughts,” is saddened by a “Goldengrove” where the “[l]eaves” are falling from their trees to signal their end. There is so much information presented within this bit of description that the reader might actually overlook some of the more significant details. Specifically, Margaret is being treated as an aspect of nature herself since her ideas are referred to as “fresh,” which is a description that is fitting when detailing, for instance, an apple. The fruit is “fresh” because age has yet to take its vigor, and this similarity of wording parallels Margaret’s youth with nature’s bounty.

Furthermore, the notion that she is “grieving” over a “Goldengrove” is telling. A “grove” means a series of trees, and the idea that they are “[g]olden” links the setting to autumn colors showcasing themselves on the “[l]eaves.” These details are key in understanding the scene itself because the reader can envision a collection of autumn-colored trees before the young girl as she weeps, and they are significant as well to the meaning of the poem. If the reader grasps that the young girl is “grieving” for trees losing their luster through changing seasons, the concept of mortality is centered as a focal point to the poem’s overall concept.

 

Lines 5-9

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.

The narrator in this poem assures the young child that her “heart” will age and mature until she is “colder” toward sights of nature’s demise, so much that she will not “spare a sigh” for them once she is older. This information is given after a quick “Ah!” for a transitional element from her current “grie[f]” to her future lack of “mourn[ing],” and that simple addition to the poem offers a wistful quality to the concept, as if the narrator thinks fondly of Margaret’s youthful ideas, but ultimately knows that they will not survive until her adulthood. Is this a condescending quality, or is it just an indication of nostalgia overtaking the narrator? The answer to this question is speculation, at best, but given the description of “wanwood leafmeal lie,” which is a cumbersome way to say that a collection of dead “[l]eaves” are cluttered together, the reader could easily conclude that the narrator is, in fact, being condescending by flashing his knowledge of deeper, more mature concepts that the child cannot grasp.

There is also a promise of sorts in these lines when the narrator ends the thought by declaring that even though nature in autumn’s grip will not spark Margaret’s “mourn[ing]” as she ages, she “will [still] weep and know why.” Essentially, he assures the child that her emotions will linger, though logically they would need to be directed at something else if nature will no longer be the cause, and she will one day discover the reason behind her emotions, something that the child would arguably not understand at such a youthful point in her life.

Also worth noting is that this is the series of lines that shake up the rhyme scheme. Whereas the lines before and after follow a AABBCC… rhyme scheme, there are a trio of lines here that offer rhyming words, specifically lines 7, 8, and 9 that end with “sigh,” “lie,” and “why.” Already, this section has been noted as transitional territory in that the narrator is giving commentary that is more future-focused for this child, but this alteration of rhyme scheme solidifies that variation. This is the pivotal change, just like the distinctive change that the girl will undergo once she understands “why” she has to “weep.”

 

Lines 10-11

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Once more, Hopkins presents the reader with concepts that are linked to natural ideas, therefore constructing a concrete representation of the human life through metaphor. In particular, human “[s]orrow” does not have storage, a supply, or some other generic method of expression. It has “springs,” and that choice of wording parallels “[s]orrow’s” existence with that of a body of freshwater so very representative of nature.

Hopkins also reinforces the concept that Margaret will still “mourn” after she has reached adulthood, and states the reason for her future “mourn[ing]” will be “the same” as her current dismay over the demise of the “[l]eaves” on the trees. “[T]he name” will be different, which makes sense if the “[l]eaves” will not so much as incite “a sigh” from her in later years, but the underlying rationale for “grie[f]” in either instance will remain unchanged. The question remains though as to what that underlying reason is, and it is only in the last lines of the poem that the idea is stated so clearly as to remove any doubt.

 

Lines 12-15

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.

Here, the reader learns that the principle reason for Margaret’s “mourn[ing]” has nothing to do with autumn plants or a field of trees. Rather, “[i]t is Margaret [she mourns] for.” Essentially, though the child cannot understand the reason for her despair, the troubling aspect that sparks her tears is that one day she will die, and she “mourns” her own mortality. In time, she will know this detail, but for now, she “grie[ves]” in the simple manner of having her heart touched by dying “[l]eaves.” This is not something that Margaret should feel weak over as the narrator knows that such “is the blight man was born for,” creating a universality to the concept. Everyone is destined to leave life behind, and having fear, dread, or “grie[f]” over that idea is rational and real, even before a person is old enough to fully understand the prospect enough to differentiate what she “mourn[s]” for.

Overall, this poem is commentary to the fear and dread of death that is so integral to life. Young Margaret does not grasp that she has any kind of thought of her own mortality, and according to Hopkins, she will not have that understanding until later in life. Still, that heaviness in regard to mortality surfaces in details that she does grasp, like that “[l]eaves” die in the fall. She recognizes mortality, and one day she will realize that her hesitance toward it is connected to her own end.

Even though she does not yet know, the dread is there, highlighting the fear and concern of mortality that haunts humans throughout life.

 

About Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Victorian poet who seemed comfortable with addressing heavy topics within his work, as is the case with “Spring and Fall.” Rather than solely focus on the lighter aspects of life, he was willing to discuss less pleasant notions to deliver works that could resound on deep levels with readers. According to one source though, his choices of topic and delivery were reasons as to why his primary fame and publication as a poet only happened after his death. Regardless, he is noted today as one of the most prominent and skilled poets of his time.

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