Breath of Clarity

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall

The speaker starts with a question to a child, “are you grieving / Over Golden grove unleaving?” This is a place whose name suggests an idyllic play-world, is “unleaving,” or losing its leaves as winter approaches. The child, with her “fresh thoughts,” cares about the leaves and is bothered by their departure. The speaker reflects that age will alter this innocent response, and that later whole “worlds” of forest will be without leaves. The child will weep then, too, but for a more conscious reason. However, the source of this sadness will be the same as that of her childish grief because “sorrow’s springs are the same.”

This poem has a lyrical rhythm appropriate for an address to a child. It appears that Hopkins began composing a musical accompaniment to the verse. Each line has four beats, and they contain an irregular number of syllables. There is a sing-song effect in the first eight lines and a more uneasy effect in the last seven. The rhyme at the center of the poem indicates this change. The speaker incorporates pauses, and at other times he lets the stresses stand together for emphasis. For example, the speaker says “will weep” and “ghost guessed”. The alliteration contributes to the slowing of the rhythm at these most dramatic points in the poem.

The title of the poem associates the young girl Margaret, in her fresh innocence, with the springtime. Hopkins’s choice of the word “fall” rather than the “autumn” links the idea of autumnal decay with the fall of man. That initial loss initiated human mortality and suffering. In contrast, the life of a young child represents the state of man before the Adam and Eve took fruit from the tree. Margaret lives in a state of harmony with nature that allows her to relate to her “Goldengrove” with the same sympathy she holds for human beings or, “the things of man.”

Margaret experiences an emotional crisis when confronted with the fact of death and decay that the falling leaves represent. Margaret’s grief represents such a precious phase in the development of a human being’s understanding about death and loss. The speaker suggests Margaret reached a certain level of maturity. She feels sorrow at the onset of autumn. The speaker understands, that as she grows older, she will continue to experience this same grief. Still, the speaker thinks Margaret will be more self-consciousness about its real significance. Hopkins says, “you will weep, and know why”. The word “worlds” suggests a limitless decline well beyond this experience that seems so significant from a child’s perspective. Loss is inevitable.

The final moments of the poem are the heaviest. Hopkins proceeds to identify what this sorrow is that Margaret feels and will continue to feel in different ways. The statement in the first line that “Sorrow’s springs are the same” suggests that all sorrows have the same source. It also suggests that Margaret represents a stage all people go through in coming to understand loss. It’s so remarkable that while the “mouth” and mind can’t even articulate it silently, a kind of understanding can still develop. It is “guessed” at by the “ghost” or spirit. It is an intuitive notion that all grieving points back to the self, to one’s own suffering of losses, and ultimately to one’s own mortality.

The speaker’s tone toward the child is sweet and sympathetic, but still Hopkins does not try to comfort her. We suspect that the poet has at some point gone through the same contemplations that he now observes in Margaret. The main purpose of the poem is to show that grief can be valuable because it strengthens individuals. It forces them to develop more conscious reflections.