Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall

Spring and Fall
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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 will 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.

Synopsis: The speaker observes, imagines, remembers, or actually addresses a young girl who is sad to see leaves falling off trees. He tells her that as she grows older, she will no longer care for falling leaves but will still “weep and know why.” The underlying reason will be the same; it was always “Margaret [she] mourn[ed] for.”

Some contested or open questions:

1) What does the last line mean? Perhaps the adult Margaret mourns because she sees that her heart has hardened and she no longer mourns the falling leaves. Or perhaps she was sorrowful as a child for a reason that she only understands later: the autumn leaves were evidence of mortality, and so she has always wept for the same cause, her own fragility and death.

2) Who and where is the speaker? Is he (or she) talking to the little girl? To the adult Margaret? Just to us, and Margaret is a memory or fantasy? Is the speaker the ghost in line 13? Could the speaker be the older Margaret?

Form: With 15 rhymed lines, this is like a sonnet in which one pivotal couplet has been turned into a tercet. But it is an unusual sonnet because Hopkins imitates old English poetry. Two clues are the alliteration and the invented words with Anglo-Saxon ring, like “wanwood leafmeal.” More pervasively, Hopkins uses “sprung rhythms”–the form that is common to Anglo-Saxon poetry, nursery rhymes, and rap. In conventional English verse since the Renaissance, the lines have regular numbers of syllables, but the number and pattern of stresses is varied. In sprung rhythms, on the other hand, each line has the same number of stresses and takes the same amount of time to speak, but the number of syllables is varied. (E.g., each line of this nursery rhyme consumes the same amount of time and has three accented beats: “Hickory dickory dock / The mouse ran up the clock / The clock struck one / And down he run / Hickory dickory dock”). Hopkins starts this poem with couplets of one sentence each that alternate regularly between seven and eight syllables, but then he moves to pure sprung rhythm at the end.

Specific notes:

“gríeving / Over”: the usual preposition would be “for,” but “over” is appropriate for grief over a dead body, as at a wake.

“unleaving”: an Anglo-Saxonish coinage, and also a pun. The trees are unleaving as a person undresses–shedding their leaves. Also, the Goldengrove is not leaving: it is unchanging. Does that mean that the essence of the wood remains even as the leaves fall? Or that the girl’s sad experience in Goldengrove is permanent?

Line 3-4, in paraphrase: Because you are young and naive, you can care for leaves and the “things of man.”

“Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”: I read this as: “even though years of leaves have piled up as dirt (leafmeal).” The implied comparison is to generations of people piling up as dead. I have seen notes, however, in which “leafmeal” is read more as verb: a tree “leafs” by losing its leaves. “Wan” seems to mean “pale,” which could be odd for an autumn wood, but áwannian is Anglo-Saxon for “to become livid or black.” And ámeallod is “to be emptied out.”

“And yet you will weep and know why”: But the question is exactly why will she weep. For her growing callousness? For her mortality?

“Sórrow’s spríngs are the same”: An important pun. “Springs” means origins, and the origins of her sorrow are loss and death. “Springs” are also the antidotes to autumns, as implied by the title. Margaret is in the springtime of her life. The trees will “leaf” again and new Margarets will be born. (Alexandra Keegan sees a reference to the Book of Job: “For sorrow cometh not forth from the dust, Nor from the ground springeth up misery.”)

“Nor mouth had …” Now the rhythm and syntax are getting tangled, agitated, difficult, reflecting the speaker’s state of mind. This sentence could be paraphrased as: “The heart and spirit already guessed the truth that was not yet explicit in the child’s mind or speech.” But Hopkins turns that idea upside-down and begins with the negatives, “Nor … no nor …”

“Ghost” could mean “spirit,” in contrast to reason or articulate thought. (Hopkins, a Catholic priest, would use “ghost” as in the phrase “Holy Ghost.”) But the word also makes one wonder about the speaker. He or she is a ghostly presence observing the little girl. In fact, the speaker could be Margaret, much later in life or after death.

“The blight man was born for”: vulnerability to loss? Growing callousness? Dying like a falling leaf?

For comparison: my own sonnet to Hopkins (inspired by “Spring and Fall”) and my notes to Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” which is also about mortality.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in notes on poems. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Pingback: Donald Justice, Men at Forty « Peter Levine()

  • Laura Jeffries

    I have always interpreted the “blight man was born for” in a straightforward Catholic vein: the suffering and death whch are the fruits of orginal sin. As Margaret matures in spiritual understanding, she will “know” (line 9) the inescapability of this sadness and also release her childish attachment to the ephemeral leaves of this world (or something like that?).

    • PeterLevine

       That sounds right and sounds like the dominant meaning. Thanks.