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18 October 2009

Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving? / "Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Click image, larger maybe.
Mill River, Leeds village,
Northampton, Massachusetts USA.

The website I filched this from was a scholarly site which shotgunned this beautiful poem full of [3] and [9] and line numbers

1........Margaret, are you grieving
2........Over Goldengrove unleaving?

... which is such a rude thing to do to a fine poet that I wrote the website professor and complained. He defended the annotation scheme as absolutely necessary to truly understand the poem and the poet.

I don't think the professor and I are ever going to reach any kind of understanding. He thinks I'm an unwashed knuckledragger, and I think he's an effete arrogant snoot who likes to abuse poems amd long-dead poets who can no longer defend their work from such ignorant assaults.

I think he's at the University of Toronto, if it's convenient for any reader to run into him on a speeding bicycle -- not kill him, just hospitalize him for a few days to make him think more clearly about how to treat literature -- I'd be grateful.

So the Vleeptron Ministry of Poems and Limericks (VMPL) reproduces "Spring and Fall / to a young child" without blasting it full of holes by numerical and dingbat pellets from the Higher Realms of Academe, whose mission it is to stand between the poet and the reader and make things unecessarily difficult, obscure and confusing.

Since the Protestant upheaval of King Henry VIII and the centuries of bloody strife, war and conflict that followed, the Catholic voice of England's politics and literature has, often literally, gone underground, and what continued of it was often coded or presented as hidden allegory. Recent scholarship and interpretation suggests that Shakespeare clung to his childhood Catholicism, and his work is imbedded with hushed reverence, at a time when it was very risky for a prominent Englishman to be suspected of Catholic sympathies.

Though England has a gazillion Catholics and the right of Catholics to worship openly was restored centuries ago, only in our time might it be accurate to say that Catholics are the fully legal equals of Protestants in legal rights, citizenship and opportunity.

I think Protestants in line for the throne are still forbidden from marrying Catholics, or their issue cannot inherit the throne, but I've heard a buzz that Parliament is considering ending this ancient discrimination -- probably retaining "safeguards" to prevent the coronation of a Catholic. Average and ruling-class England is still considerably Anti-Papist, though the actual assassinations, executions, banishments and imprisonments have given way to dirty slurs and crude Music Hall and TV skits and theatricals.

I think Gerard Manley Hopkins arrived at Oxford a Protestant -- probably Church of England (Anglican / Episcopalian) -- but was swept up by Cardinal John Henry Newman's intellectual revival of Catholicism just at the moment he began writing his enormously powerful poems.

After Oxford Hopkins took the vows of a Catholic priest wishing a lifetime serving the poorest slumdwellers of England's huge industrial cities, and gave up his youthful poetry, which he considered an unworthy idle hobby, until his talent was brought to the attention of his bishop, who commanded Hopkins to continue writing his remarkable poetry. We are greatly indebted to this poetry-loving bishop.

Hopkins' poems are not of his time, not Victorian, not the themes or the techniques of his contemporary English poets. In particular he fled from the Victorian poets' florid, synthetically antique, overblown language and tried to restore the simple, blunt, direct vocabulary and rhyme schemes of pre-medieval Anglo-Saxon poetry (or what we know of what little has survived). This is a particularly different kind of English from modern English, because the Norman Conquest (1066) intervened and imposed about three centuries of Court French on the native language. Hopkins writes poems to reflect the pre-Norman influence on the language; his poems are intended to bring back the sound and impact of English in 850 A.D., and particularly its tools for expressing spiritual matters.

Ordinary words spelled with odd diacritical marks

What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:

are Hopkins' way of guiding pronunciation and rhyme back to 850 A.D., a scheme he called Sprung Rhythm. Not every critic has been generous or tolerant of this unique experiment in modern poetry; some write Hopkins off as a notable and talented literary dead end without subsequent influence on English poetry. If I had the nerve to write more poems, I would certainly credit Hopkins with influencing me.

But Hopkins universally is given prominent space and honor in every important collection of English 19th-century poetry. He is too good to be ignored, he is too good to be forgotten or ever declared out of style and unimportant. He grabbed onto this great language ferociously and with deep skills to manipulate its special powers, and did this in a century otherwise not very great for English poetry.

I haven't looked up a single fact on Wikipedia, so please feel free to find all kinds of Errors and Mistakes in this introduction, and Leave a Comment to set me straight. I've tossed in the Professor's copious footnotes, although I don't think any thoughtful, intelligent human being -- even little girls named Margaret -- needs them to feel what Hopkins wished readers to feel.

It's topical because at this moment, the trees surrounding our new house in the forests of Western Massachusetts are unleaving, explosively and magnificently, but threatening a long dark cold bleakness ahead.

~ ~ ~

Spring and Fall
to a young child

by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

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 & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & 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.

~ ~ ~

1] Hopkins wrote this poem as he walked from Lydiate to the train for Liverpool (White). He wrote Robert Bridges that it was "a little piece composed since I began this letter [Sept. 5], not founded on any real incident. I am not well satisfied with it" (Letters, I, 109).

2] Goldengrove: capitalized, as a place name, perhaps the real Golden Grove, Carmarthenshire (Wales), about three hours south of Liverpool, the estate of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), an Anglican bishop who wrote a manual of daily prayers, The Golden Grove (1655). unleaving: letting fall its leaves, "unleafing." There may be a play on the sense, "not departing from" (i.e., that Margaret must stay in Goldengrove in its present state).

4] fresh: newly experienced, youthful.

6] colder: with less emotion.

8] wanwood leafmeal: dark forest (Old English "wann"; possibly our "wan," `pale and tired'), with all its leaves on the ground, "piecemeal."

11] springs: origins; playing on tears (cf. 9 "weep"). the same: all one.

13] ghóst: soul.

Commentary by Ian Lancashire (2002/9/9)

A little girl named Margaret cries over the lovely golden leaves of the autumn forest, all fallen to the ground; and she asks the speaker why they are shed. Like many children, she gets upset easily when things are not as she would have them and is ever full of questions for explanations. She willfully cries and cries, insisting, the speaker says, on knowing "why" (9). Parents and teachers usually answer these questions patiently, sympathetically. Leaves fall because of the seasons. It is just "Spring and Fall" and the leaves will come back next year, so that there is no reason to cry, is there? This speaker, unlike older people who talk down to children in a well-meaning, comforting way, does not tell her that she cries without cause. He does not bring comfort; he tries not to treat her as a child at all. Although we may not be meant to know who the speaker is, we all do because Hopkins signed his name to the poem. Of course he was a Catholic priest who routinely took confessions and gave absolution, baptized and pronounced the last rites, administered mass and marriage, and above all taught his parishioners about life in the context of God's eternity. Margaret came to the wrong person if she hoped for sympathy. She received a lesson instead.

"Spring and Fall" is not about the seasons, or even about Golden Grove, Bishop Jeremy Taylor's well-known home in Wales, though the prayer book that he published in 1655 and that Hopkins may have remembered hints at what the poem does concern. The Spring of the poem's title is the source of all tears, "Sorrow's springs" (11), and that source is the "Fall" of Man: original sin and the punishments meted out to Adam, Eve, and their descendents for their eating of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "Goldengrove unleaving" is the world infected with "the blight man was born for" (14); it is, as John Milton said, "paradise lost." All sorrows, whether for leaves or "the things of man" (3), have their origin in that primal event described in Genesis and, according to the New Testament, paid for by God's son Jesus at his crucifixion and death. The seasons run parallel to the life and death of every man. They result from the same blanket, divinely ordained curse pronounced on Adam and Eve in Eden by which everything in the human world suffered. Hopkins uses the term "blight" for its associations with a disease afflicting crops and the natural world for this reason.

Hearing Margaret's heartfelt grief at the fallen leaves, and taking her plea for an explanation seriously, Hopkins' speaker tells her of a calamity that, over time, will inure her to all other losses. "It is Margaret," herself cursed, whom she mourns for. All "sights," even were they to encompass entire "worlds," fade into insignificance in comparison to what humanity intuits but never explicitly verbalizes or even conceptualizes. "
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed", is something felt as an emotion and sensed as a spirit or soul, because the soul, unlike the body, was thought immortal, generated by God from a world very unlike our own. The proper name "Margaret" means a pearl, which is symbolically the New Testament's pearl of great price, that is, the soul. Margaret grieves because of an intuition that comes naturally to someone named as she is.

Though having just one line more than a sonnet, Hopkins' "Spring and Fall" draws on two poetic forms from very different traditions: children's sing-song, and the four-stress Old English alliterating line. The six double rhymes (1-6, 10-15), of which the second is a weakly-stressed syllable (except at 10-11), give the verse a lilting, singable character, not unlike nursery rhymes. For example, the last couplet, "born for" and "mourn for" (14-15), imposes on the somber thought a music found usually in light verse, not ode, elegy, or complaint. The one triplet, at lines 7-9 (which marks a transition between Margaret's problem and its explanation), features internal rhymes on "sights" and "sigh," "by" and "sigh", and "Though" and "know", that together enhance this child-like easiness. Simple idioms like "can you?" (4), "the heart grows older" (5), "By & by" (7), and "no matter" (10) belong to a poem addressed, like any nursery rhyme, to a "child" (10) who may be crying.
Old English prosody builds on a line with two two-stress half-lines of indeterminate length (that is, the number of syllables is not fixed) in which the stressed terms alliterate. Here, stresses in lines 1-2 and 13 fall on "g"-words, lines 4 and 6 on "c"-words, lines 8-9 on "w"-words, lines 7 and 11 on "s"-words, and so on. This technique influenced Hopkins' conception of "sprung rhythm" and explains why he placed stress marks on some words, such as "will" in line 9. Note how Hopkins' lines have a caesural pause in their middle: this break turns them into paired half-lines. His use of compound words in "wanwood leafmeal", termed "kennings" in Old English, also harks back to its poetics; and so do words lacking determiners in lines 12-13, "mouth", "mind", "heart", and "ghost." Prosodic effects like these estrange his writing from modern speech and lend it a staccato, urgent energy that goes lacking in much Victorian poetry.

The title "Spring and Fall" nicely conveys the metrical effects Hopkins achieves in yoking Old English two-stress half-lines with double rhymes ending on weak syllables.

Finally, although Hopkins may have had little use for syllable-counting in his theory of sprung rhythm, he clearly employs variations in line-length to good effect here. The poem breaks into two parts, the speaker's recognition of Margaret's grief at lines 1-8, and his explanation for that sorrow at lines 9-15. The first eight lines consist of four sentences, each with two lines, a couplet, having 7 and then 8 syllables. The pattern is a regular 7, 8, 7, 8, 7, 8, 7, and 8 syllables. Three of these couplets also close with strong terminal punctuation on the second line, the one with 8 syllables. The final seven lines follow a more disordered pattern, with 8, 7, 6, 8, 6, 8, and 8 syllables. This irregularity expresses the strong feelings of the speaker. Note that in every instance the 8-syllable lines convey the tenets that he teaches. Like stressed alliterative verse, line-lengths communicate the drama of thought and feeling in the speaker's mind.

Hopkins' sonnets, alternately the bleakest ("No worst, there is none") and most exalting ("God's Grandeur") in English, sometimes give vent to his frustration as a poet whose writings went unpublished and unrecognized in his lifetime. If he remembered Taylor's "The Golden Grove," the collection of prayers, "Spring and Fall" may have had a private meaning for Hopkins. The word "leaves" connotes "pages" too. The poem's second last couplet, "Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What h?art h?ard of, gh?st gu?ssed" (12-13), expresses deep skepticism about whether human language and thought can tell us what we too need to know. Margaret's "fresh thoughts", caring for "Leaves, like the things of man" (3-4), will give way to a heart that intuits what cannot be put into words. If the "unleaving" of Goldengrove connotes the loss of poetry, possibly that does not matter much.


* Driscoll, John P. "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child." Explicator

* Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. Catherine Phillips. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

* Louise, Sister Robert. "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child." Explicator

* Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. HarperCollins.

* McChesney, Donald. A Hopkins Commentary: An Explanatory Commentary on the Main Poems, 1876-89. University of London Press.

* White, Norman. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.

Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: The Later Poetic Manuscripts of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Facsimile, ed. Norman H. MacKenzie (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1991): 217. PR 4803 H44A6 1991 Robarts Library

First publication date: 1918
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1996-2000.
Recent editing: 2:2002/3/14*1:2002/9/9*1:2002/9/9*1:2004/1/8*1:2005/4/20
Composition date: 1880
Rhyme: aabbccdddeeffgg


David Goldstein said...

Hallo - just thought I'd say that I enjoyed your essay, which I came across browsing on Hopkins' poem. Thanks

Vleeptron Dude said...

Hiya David Goldstein --

Anyone hunting the Web for Hopkins is okie dokie with me.

It's considerably longer, and much more religious (Catholic) in emphasis, but may I recommend Hopkins' "The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe." It's quite powerful. A famous snippet:

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air:

Hopkins' most discussed poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," honors German nuns who drowned as Germany's anti-Catholic Falk Laws had exiled them.

Incidentally, on his most recent trip to England, the Pope beatified Cardinal Newman, whose Oxford influence converted Hopkins and a lot of other English intellectuals and aristocrats. I think they have to attribute a couple of miracles to him before he achieves the final step of sainthood.

Look, I'm Jewish (and Buddhist and Sufi and Quaker and neo-Pythagorean) and likely will stay that way, but Hopkins just always smacked me in the face with his stuff.

Welcome to Planet Vleeptron and who are you where are you what are you?

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