Autumn and a favourite poem

Autumn Leaves

Autumn leaves

I was lying in front of a sunny window reading my current novel this afternoon when an urge came upon me to write about one of my favourite poems. It’s one of the few I can recite from heart. The poem is “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it goes like this:

To a young child

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 héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Spring and Fall Quilt, 1985

Spring and Fall Small Quilt, 1985

Now, I know you Northern Hemisphere people are enjoying spring and looking forward to the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, but down here in the south it is autumn which is, for me and I suspect many of us, a bittersweet time. Sweet because the weather is usually mild and stable, and the light soft and warm, but bitter because there’s a chill in the air, the days are shortening and the frosts are coming. It is for this paradox – and its implications, its recognition of our mortality – that I love Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”.

What I love about this poem is what I love about Hopkins in general. Firstly there’s his heart that is so openly on show in all his poems, both the religious crisis poems and the ones about life and nature. Then there’s the tone, which is, in this poem, rather melancholic. After all, he is telling the child, Margaret, that what she’s really grieving for, though she’s unaware of it now, is her own mortality. I also love his rhythm (which he called “sprung rhythm“) and how in this poem there’s a jolt towards the end when he makes his main point.  And associated with this, the rhyme, which is appropriately simple here for a poem addressed to a child. But most of all, I love his language, particularly his imagery and the neologisms (like “wanwood leafmeal”). Or, perhaps, not quite most of all … I think most of all I love the way the language so perfectly matches the heart.

The older I get, the more I understand and love this poem!

Do you have poems that come back to you again and again at different points in your life?

21 thoughts on “Autumn and a favourite poem

  1. I know this poem! It’s been a long time since I’ve read it but it is a very good one indeed. I like like the sprung rhythm especially. There are poets I go back to, Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson and a few others, and each time I read them I discover a new favorite poem or something I had not noticed before in an old favorite. are you the maker of the quilt in the photo? It’s really beautiful.

    • Glad you like it too Stefanie. I know Whitman and Dickinson of course but Rich I know mainly through you though I did know her name before you started mentioning her. I discovered a new Hopkins this time … Binsey Poplars. I think I’m going to have to write about it one day, too, even though there are so many others of his that I love and that pop often into my head regularly. And yes, I did make the quilt. It was my first real, own design project, and I’m fond of it … Mostly because of the relationship with the poem!

    • No … But thanks for reminding me, Guy … Another friend recommended it when it came out in his city, not knowing my love of Hopkins and this poem, but either it didn’t come here or I was away at the time. I’m now going to see if I can get it.

    • Now, why did I have to approve you again I wonder Anna? Anyhow, yes, I first did this at school and/or university and it is one that has really stuck … it pops into me head regularly. I’m generally an optimist but I am often attracted to melancholy … Perhaps it adds colour and contrast to my life!

  2. I’ve known, of course, that this is your favourite poem (or one of them), but I understand more, now. You’ve written about it so well. I understand.

  3. Hi Sue, I loved this post. Because the Hopkins poem is so good – ‘And yet you will weep and know why’; what a line! – but also because you know this work off by heart. I’d love to know a poem off by heart. But not a chance, I’m afraid. Thanks for posting this.

    • Oh thanks Nigel … I’m thrilled that you like the poem … he has some wonderful lines. As for remembering this poem – it’s really the only one – and I don’t have my own creations running around my head! Wish I did.

  4. I love it too. I have many favourites. His poetry at its best has that white-hot Heraclitean fire, inimitable and original; no-one else has put words together, in such rhythms, as he has. One of my favourites, though one of the less fiery ones, is God’s Grandeur. YOu have to read it in toto to fully feel it. But the lines that always come back to me are:

    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    Word broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    • Oh yes Christina … love that one too .. that ending “with ah! bright wings”. I also love “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame … ” with the “roundy wells”. I could go on. Or, “No, I’ll not carrion comfort, Despair not feast on thee”. He’s wonderful. Truly original, as you say …

  5. I first came across this poem when reading Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove. Thanks for your annotations… it’s very meaningful. And, about the seasons, while spring may be a welcome sight, for some strange reasons, I miss winter’s snow. (not the temp. just the beautiful snow scenes)

    • Oh, glad you liked the post Arti. I didn’t want to go on overly about it … Sounds like I should check out that book.

      As for missing winter, I can sort of understand missing the beauty but as a child of the sun, of browns and golds, it’s only an understanding of the mind, not of the heart!

      • The book I found to be just so so, albeit I remember the poem’s in it. Since you love the poem so, and of course thematically (as you’ve discussed above) reflected in the story, you might find it interesting from that perspective.

  6. I like it: it’s a mix of Victorian rhyming couplet tum te tum — “Margaret, are you grieving | Over Goldengrove unleaving?” — and then that moment of proper Hopkins, Middle English compressed alliteration — “What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed” — with the bouncing internal rhymes that are his listening signature, vowel and consonant — both inside the word and outside, the repeated g g but also the repeated uptick of e and closeness of o and u — and then the sentiment, the woman mourning her transience via flowers, Hopkins producing a more universal and lustless version of those poems that warn a woman that if she doesn’t take advantage of her beauty now by having sexy fun times with the poet then she will regret it when she’s old, like that rose over there wilting off the stem.

  7. How beautiful, I’ve never read this. I think I immerse myself too much in novels and short stories to read much poetry lately. I can’t think of any that have passed through my head. I did buy a Yeats book recently but gave it to a friend in need before I could read it!

    • Then I’m really glad you liked it Catherine … I enjoy poetry but don’t read it as much as I’d like. So many different forms of writing to read … I haven’t really read Yeats since school I think. I should read him again. But then the are so many new poets!

  8. I love this poem too and was delighted to read your response to it – you seem to describe so well all I half-felt and almost understood when reading it. Maeve

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