Although it is hardly a new topic of discussion, I would like to examine the intensity of Hopkins’s language. Hopkins’s poem, “Spring and Fall,” uses the compactness of its connotations to convey the emotion of a young child’s first intimation of mortality.
The poem runs as follows:
1 Márgarét, áre you gríeving
2 Over Goldengrove unleaving?
3 Leáves, líke the things of man, you
4 With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
5 Áh! ás the heart grows older
6 It will come to such sights colder
7 By and by, nor spare a sigh
8 Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
9 And yet you wíll weep and know why.
10 Now no matter, child, the name:
11 Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
12 Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
13 What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
14 It ís the blight man was born for,
15 It is Margaret you mourn for.
Hopkins’s use of “unleaving” gets at the paradox of Margaret’s dawning realization. The “goldengrove” is “unleaving” in the sense that the trees are losing their yellow leaves. Contrastingly, what is “unleaving” or eternal about the vista is its golden character. Here we can think of Keats’s line “Thou still unravished bride of quietness” as another example of poetry that holds the diverging connotations of a single word — still — in direct tension.
As the poem continues, Hopkins develops a strikingly involuted pattern of thought. The speaker asks, “Leaves, like the things of man, you / With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?” The poem’s explicit subject is a young child’s “grieving” for the turning of the season and its effect on a “goldengrove.” By likening leaves to “the things of man,” Hopkins reverses this scenario: the appurtenances of man become the exemplar for nature. This self-reflexive turn lodges Margaret’s “care” within the human subject. While emotion ostensibly arises for a child’s identification with nature, the force of her pathos is contained within the spiritual self.
The trope of turning inwards continues with lines 8-9: “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; / And yet you will weep and know why.” The mature speaker announces a progression in the self-consciousness of his na•ve ward, Margaret. Indeed his ruminations on her attitudes take the form of a sentimental education. The speaker first instructs Margaret to read nature as “like the things of man.” From this vantage, he intimates that she knows the source of her sorrow, and he uses the example of his own “colder sighs” to indicate the emotional path forward. Lines 8 and 9 suggest that Margaret finds herself emotionally invested in the sights of fallen leaves, in part, because she finds the spectacle of autumn personally relevant.
Like his comment on “Goldengrove unleaving,” the speaker’s asserts that “Sorrow’s springs are the same” (line 11). On one level, the speaker suggests that the emotive mechanism, or spring, lies within the feeling subject. Having said this, the effect of Hopkins’s phrase “Sorrow’s springs” depends on a homophony with the season of Spring. The troping of a season, Spring, into an action, spring, offers a mirror image of how the season Fall devolves into an emotion laden awareness of Mankind’s descent or mortal fall. The aspirations of “a Young Child” in the Spring of her life declines into the speaker’s more somber, shall we say autumnal, prognostications for her growing sense of mortality.
Here I am less interested in the speaker’s grim verdict, “It is Margaret you mourn for,” than I am with voice that emerges in the penultimate couplet: “Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed” (lines 12-13). The speaker cedes the power of his own didacticism in favor of the liminal realizations that only Margaret’s heart can guess. Interestingly, the speaker becomes a ghost in this scenario, who only guesses at what Margaret feels.
What takes place in Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” is a version of what Paul de Man describes as prosopopeia. The poem is not the typical personification of a voiceless landscape. Rather, according to etymological definition of “prosopopeia,” the speaker “confers a mask” of mortality upon the face of a young child’s sorrows. The paradoxical result is that speaker threatens to make himself into a ghost haunting Margaret’s life — one who overreaches in his attempt to have Margaret realize what only he can express: death is all. The force of the speaker’s final verdict indicates how it is his outlook, rather than Margaret’s, that is no more alive than “wanwood leafmeal.”
As a whole, Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall” turns from nature to a child’s consciousness to the views of a disembodied speaker. In doing so, the poem gets further and further away from an immediate response to nature, and closer and closer to the reflexive tropes of self-consciousness. Hopkins offers a striking verdict on this movement: the mind which takes itself as an object of though ultimately becomes its own ghost. By contrast, the figurative turning of phrases like “Goldengrove unleaving” or “Sorrow’s springs” points to the ever-present potential for language to regenerate the formative contradiction between hope and despair, and in doing so refurbish the possibility of a spiritual Spring after the physical Fall.
1. How does Hopkins’s spiritual life play into a poem like “Spring and Fall?”
2. Why do some critics claim that Hopkins’s “sprung rhythm” is a typical rather than idiosyncratic occurrence in Victorian poetry?
3. How does Hopkins position his religious outlook as a lens for understanding the world?
4. Why poetry for Hopkins?
Last modified 30 October 2006
Last modified 30 October 2006