A young child, Margaret, grieves for the time-swept autumn leaves. She is the object of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall,” and her bright Goldengrove is now “unleaving.” Goldengrove, with all its connotations of idyllic youth and sunny play. Goldengrove, where we imagine little Margaret exulting, with Chestertonian wonder, in the gratuitous magic of the world. Even glittering Goldengrove is not sheltered from fall—and the Fall.
The poet wonders how a child so “fresh,” like some new bloom of spring, can mourn this autumnal scattering:
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…
Why will young Margaret, so unstinting in her sympathy, one day not “spare a sigh” as “wan” woods lessen into “leafmeal”? The Romantic poet Wordsworth lamented that the grown man no longer perceives nature’s “celestial light”—those epiphanic “Intimations of Immortality” obvious to the child. Yet Hopkins, as Norman MacKenzie notes, imagines a child who confronts “Intimations of Mortality”—confronts fallen leaves that are, for poets from Virgil to Shelley, “ghostly image[s]” of departed souls.
So though the “name” behind her grief eludes her, though she must grow older to “know why” she “will weep” without sparing sighs for nature, Margaret begins to sense that fall adumbrates mankind’s Fall into death through sin. She faintly intuits a Psalmic truth:
You sweep men away like a dream,
like grass which springs up in the morning.
In the morning it springs up and flowers:
by evening it withers and fades. (Psalm 90)
As the Psalmist’s swift lines capture time’s dreamlike “sweep” from morning to evening, Hopkins’ poetry painfully shrinks the interval between spring and fall. Young Margaret already hears the sad guess of her own mortality:
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.
“Ghost guessed”—how keenly Hopkins names the soul’s prescient guesswork about the “blight” of death. And his language becomes achingly particular in the poem’s final line, for it is not generic “man” but unrepeatable Margaret who is finally mourned.
While Hopkins ends with this poignant image, he is a poet-priest whose literary corpus stresses that nature is suffused with the divine. Hopkins could gaze at a bluebell and remark, “By its beauty I know the beauty of Our Lord.” He could, as Mitchell Kalpakgian says of “The Windhover,” liken Christ’s “movements in the world to the mastery, strength, beauty, and finesse of the falcon.”
Hopkins could, as Regis Martin says of “God’s Grandeur,” dramatize a world “so galvanic with God, that the reader is actually made to feel an energy, a force suffusing the cosmos with such grace that it gives off glints of his glory everywhere.”
In “Spring and Fall,” Hopkins invites the reader to grope for faith in Christ’s presence in autumnal losses. Christ, as Ven. Fulton Sheen said, taught that nature is “stamped with a Cross; death is the condition of a new life.” That is why the “grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die,” why Christ would not let his disciples keep him “as a seed in the granary.”
In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI notes that “Christ connects the world’s spring and autumn.” For the Gospel of St. John and the epistle to the Hebrews both link Christ’s Passover in spring to the Day of Atonement in autumn:
In the Passover of Jesus there is, so to speak, a coincidence of Easter (spring) and the Day of Atonement (autumn)… The autumn of declining time becomes a new beginning, while the spring, as the time of the Lord’s death, now points to the end of time, to the autumn of the world…
Others, bereft of Hopkins’ Christian vision, saw men as leaves dumbly swept up by nature’s impersonal processes. But the poet-priest who saw Christ in bluebells and birds urges us to see, as The Spirit of the Liturgy says, that “it is [Christ] of whom creation speaks” and “it is by him that its mute message is deciphered.” It is Christ who assures us that “the adventure of creation … does not end up in absurdity and tragedy”—Christ who, by his sacrificial death, consoles Margaret and us in our autumnal sorrows.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is young Gerard Manley Hopkins taken by photographer Thomas C. Bayfield in 1866.