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 wíll 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.

Jings, Hopkins is dense. There’s so much experience, emotion, thought, crammed into his work; there are so many inversions, compressions, elisions; there’s his oft-referred to “sprung rhythm”, on which I’m not even remotely qualified to comment; there’s such intensity—such a lot to respond to. ‘Spring and Fall’, though, I think is a good place to start with Hopkins: if I don’t panic, I can get hold of a sense of what it’s about… or at least, what it says to me. (Anything I now say runs the risk of sounding like Coles’ notes, which is not what I want. However…)

What I read in this is something apparently-simply, yet profound: that the grief which belongs to our knowledge of our own mortality lies at the heart of all griefs (‘Sorrow’s springs are the same’). For me, that is emphatically not the same as saying that all other losses and griefs are unimportant, or fake. I don’t think we’re either grieving for this or that—but this and that. We can mourn the end of another beautiful season at the same time as we feel the related melancholy it stirs in us—that one more of our own seasons is over; and that we must all die. This is ‘the blight man was born for’: the burden of consciousness which, as far as we know, we don’t share with plants or animals, and which leaves us uniquely vulnerable to sorrow for ourselves and all whom we love. For me, ‘Spring and Fall’ does much to explain why we can feel “disproportionately” sad about something apparently-small. One loss prods others into wakefulness. The poem also puts me in mind of how the shape of all griefs is the same. They may be of different sizes, or duration; they all involve the same experience.

I love the way Hopkins makes words say what he wants, or makes words to say what he wants. ‘Unleaving’ (I’m writing this in November and the trees have almost finished this year’s ‘unleaving’). ‘[W]orlds of wanwood leafmeal lie’… Extraordinary. I delight in how he crams so much in: ‘Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed/What heart heard of, ghost guessed’. What an way to describe “felt” knowledge, that which we apprehend in our guts, our bones: the kind of knowledge which cannot necessarily be articulated, described in language so compressed we have to take time to attend to it, to feel out its meaning. I mean, cor! Above all, though, what calls me back to this poem is the boldness with which it speaks a truth our more mealy-mouthed age often shies from: that we must all die, and that this is hard to come to terms with.