[NOTE: In one of yesterday's posts I reproduced some photos of people when young alongside the very same people considerably older. Then I offered---without any commentary---one of my favorite poems, "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I called the photos "heartbreaking, heartwarming, and fascinating," but a couple of people took issue with the word "heartbreaking." I'm not saying everyone should find them heartbreaking, but I'd assumed the reason I called the photos "heartbreaking" was explained in the poem.
Which brings us to this post, which is about poetry.]
I first encountered Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” when I was still pretty much a child myself, maybe eleven or twelve. My brother, three years older than me, would sometimes—in those boring stretches when nothing much was on TV, and his football practices didn’t intervene—show me interesting things he’d encountered in his high school classes. Thus, this poem:
to a young child
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! 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.
It grabbed me immediately, even though it was difficult—very difficult—for a child of that age to understand. But, just as Margaret in the poem doesn’t quite know why she’s weeping and yet (according to the poet) will come to understand the springs (that is, the sources) of her sorrow better as she grows older, I grew to understand the poem and its meaning as time went on but had “guessed” it right at the outset.
Why do some people love poetry and others either have no use for it or actively dislike it? I don’t know. In fact, since most of the people in my family seemed to like it—and two of the four of us actually wrote it—I assumed that liking it was the default position of humanity. I was an adult before I learned how wrong I was.
For me, though, poetry is something like music—that is, it enters the mind and heart through a different and more emotional route than ordinary prose. The best poetry encapsulates a thought, emotion, observation, juxtaposition, truth, or some or all of the above, in an economy of expression that also has a beauty of sound that resonates and amplifies.
That description is reflected in the title of one of my favorite poetry textbooks—one I also encountered around the age of twelve via my brother, whose teacher used it in an English course. In idle hours (of which I had plenty) I would leaf through it with pleasure, and I still have that dog-eared copy, complete with my brother’s notes. It’s called Sound and Sense, and is still in print today, albeit in a newer edition.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a master of both sound and sense, even though his poems were unknown in his lifetime, and although a great many people still have a great deal of trouble with the sense of what he’s saying. That’s not surprising, because even though Hopkins wrote most of his poetry back in the 1870s and 1880s the works were unlike anything ever written before or since. Hopkins was avant garde, and in some ways he still is. He is completely unique, this lonely and almost certainly depressed cleric (like the new pope, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest) who was in conflict about whether he should even give his energies to writing poetry at all but was “unable to suppress his desire to describe the natural world,” a world that seemed to him to be awash in beauty to the glory of God.
Hopkins invented words and used meter in an unusual manner he called “sprung” rhythm, which he saw as a way to escape the “same and tame” qualities he saw in most verse of his time. His syntax is sometimes purposely complicated and sometimes very direct and clear, and the reader sees that especially in “Spring and Fall,” with its lines like “Leaves, líke the things of man, you/With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?”—full of questioning hesitations and pauses, making the reader hesitate and pause too in order to understand what Hopkins is asking the child—followed by the clarity and simple declarative force of “And yet you wíll weep and know why” and “It is Margaret you mourn for.” No misunderstanding that.
I could go on and on analyzing the poem line by line. But this is not a poetry course (and it’s already getting late today!), so I’ll just point out a few especially lovely things that are part of the reason the poem gave me a pleasant yet bittersweet chill even back when I was a child, and continues to engender the same reaction in me now lo these many years later. Hopkins’ language is close to being over-the-top in its lush use of alliteration and sounds that echo each other. In fact, “lush” is the word that keeps coming to my mind. It’s as though his feelings are so strong they overflow into the language and push it past the usual boundaries into a surprising sensuality and abundance for a man whose life was apparently very austere.
But one could never use the word “austere”to describe his language. Lines like these, with their combination of unique words and harmonically echoing sounds show his lushness very well, as well as how he always stops just short of overdoing it (at least, to my mind):
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie
The only really difficult line in the poem, I think, is this one, “What heart heard of, ghost guessed,” and the reader is helped by learning that the word “ghost” refers to “soul” or “spirit” rather than Casper or the movie.
If you don’t like poetry, all of this will probably strike you as rather odd and uninteresting. My love for poetry might seem an eccentric although harmless hobby, like collecting Star Wars figures or model trains. But for me poetry is one of the quickest roads through the mind to the heart, and the fusion of both with beauty and grace.
Hopkins has been dead for well over a century, but he speaks very loudly nonetheless. We don’t know him, of course. But in a way we do, as another trailblazer poet of approximately the same era but who lived far away from Hopkins, across an ocean, wrote:
Full of life, sweet-blooded, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the Eighty-third Year of The States,
To one a century hence, or any number of centuries
To you, yet unborn, these, seeking you.
When you read these, I, that was visible, am become
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems,
Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with
you, and become your lover;
Be it as if I were with you. Be not too certain but I
am now with you.