Spring and Fall
By Gerard Manley Hopkins
to a young child
Margaret are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for,
Ah! As 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 will weep and know why.
Now mo matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
I read this poem in high school, of course, but it didn’t make much impression. I think this is not a poem for teenagers, or at least not teenagers on assignment whizzing through a chapter in a textbook.
I did not come upon it again until I was a young mother in 1966 and was reading a piece in McCalls Magazine by Jean Kerr, the wife of then NYTimes theater critic Walter Kerr. She was the mother of 5 little boys and in The Poet and the Peasants she describes her family’s adventures with what the children called The Culture Hour.
It wasn’t easy but, with lots of parental help, lots of work, she makes clear, they had the boys learn a poem by heart every week and recite it on Sunday night. Amazingly, over time, it became an accepted part of the family routine, and the boys’ recitations became really good.
It is easy for the reader to imagine the teen age Christopher, described by his mother ‘as a little world weary, with a particular affinity for the cynical or sardonic. . . I can still see him – he must have been fifteen, messy and mussed with dirty sneakers and a deplorable shirt – reciting Browning with all the hauteur and severity of George Sanders:
‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive . . .
A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.’
George Sanders chilled into George C. Scott as he came to the lines:
‘ . . . This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.’”
A chill indeed, and weeping for My Last Duchess.
John is described as having a trace of ham, and I agree that it must have been stirring to have a 12 year old leap onto the coffeetable and declaim Alfred Noyes The Highwayman which concludes with the highwayman
‘Down like a dog on the highway
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch
Of lace at his throat.’
I love the thought of those five boys, over years going through ‘yards of poetry, volumes of poetry’ which included Spring and Fall by Hopkins. It made enough sense to John, young as he was, listening to Colin recite.
‘ John Anderson, my jo. John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonnie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo.
John Anderson my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And monie and canty day, John
We’ve had wi’ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.’
Jean then wrote, “I already knew the poem by heart, so how it happened that I heard new meanings in it I cannot exactly explain. All I can say is that after Colin had finished, to the horror of the boys and to my own acute embarrassment, I burst into tears. An uneasy silence prevailed until John said, very quietly, ‘Mom, it is Margaret you mourn for.’
And he was right, you know. He was absolutely right.”
I haven’t been able to tell my affection for this poem with a very long story becuse in my heart it is bound up with Jean Kerr and her sons. It seems very odd, even to me, but by telling my story you have all got a great helping of The Muse.