Friday, 22 October 2010

Spring and Fall

Spring and Fall
to a young child

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 and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and 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, ghost guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was a Victorian poet who achieved post-humous fame in 1918 when his poems were collected and published by his friend, the then poet laureate Robert Bridges. Hopkins was unusually sensitive in nature, and to nature, and displayed these tendencies even as a child. He was very close to his father,which was to pain him all the more when they were later estranged after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. There appears to have been an element of masochism, of pushing things to the extremes in him. Not content with mere conversion, Hopkins took orders as a Jesuit no less. As a schoolboy he abstained from salt for a week and once from water to the point of collapse (his tongue turned black). Astonishingly he burned all his early poems upon deciding to enter the priesthood (an event he later termed "the slaughter of the innocents") from the view that he should submerge his personality henceforth (perhaps akin to the Muslim concept of total submission to Allah?) and devote himself totally to his order. Nevertheless, it didn't bring him much happiness, if there is one word to describe Hopkins its "anguished". A great part of it were sexual hang-ups, there are cryptic entries in his diaries that are interpreted as keeping score of the "sin" of masturbation ("O.H" surmised to stand for Old Habits. This is one habit that must take a lot of hard dying. I believe something similar exists in Pepys' diaries). A deeper thorn in the flesh was his suppressed homosexuality. He had a crush whilst an undergraduate in Oxford on Bridges' younger cousin, Digby Dolben, which appears from the meagre remaining evidence to have been the main emotional event of Hopkins' life. Dolbens death by drowning two years later at the age of 19 seems to have preserved those feelings in amber for the rest of Hopkins' life, providing an endless source of secret joy, self-hating and guilt. In his journals he also noted the appeal to him of the siren call of loitering men and choir boys. It was these urgings, whispered in the bone, that sent him down the path of self-mortification to take up the hair-shirt, scourge, the sore-chain and a form of penance called the"custody of the eyes" where he was not allowed to look up from the ground (presumably in case it should light upon a loiterer!). In one of the Enderby novels, Anthony Burgess makes a scurrilous accusation of pederasty against Hopkins with a choir-boy, however there is no evidence that he ever acted on his impulses. This was after all, an age where people certainly knew all about self-control and denial. Poor Hopkins, he would have been so much happier born in our day and age, but then he would also have lacked the creative tension that fed his muse. I am reminded of the following poem:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

W.B. Yeats "The Choice"

Despite his initial decision, Hopkins resumed writing seven years later after some encouragement from his superior. Nevertheless all of his work was unpublished in his lifetime and was only circulated privately within his small group of acquaintances.

Hopkins died in Dublin, aged 45, of typhoid. He had been depressed for several years due to a sense of growing isolation and health problems. The harrowing poem "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark" dates form this period. There may also have been a gnawing realisation of non-achievement, he (who graduated with a First from Oxford) having failed his final theology exam which scuttled his chances for advancement in his order. As a result he was shunted from posting to posting before washing up in Dublin. In spite of everything, his last words were "I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life".

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Any resemblance to Rodney Trotter is purely coincidental.

"Spring and Fall" achieves the perfection that is only attained in short works. The poet addresses a young girl who is distressed at the dying leaves of autumn and muses that in the way of the world, she will outgrow such childish thoughts and reserve her emotions for weightier (to adults at least) matters. And yet, with the wisdom of babes, the wellsprings of her emotion arise from the tragedy of the human condition, our mortality and sadness at the passing of time and life, even if she is unaware of the deeper significance. I feel there is also an unstated note of regret at the loss of the purity of emotion and expression that a child like Margaret experiences and which she will learn to conceal as she grows older.

An often claimed source of the poem is Millais' painting of a group of young girls heaping a pile of autumn leaves which Hopkins was known to have admired, Margaret may have been based on the youngest, pensive girl. I prefer to think that Hopkins was inspired by watching some unknown child in a park under a soft fall of leaves in the dying sunlight (Goldengrove!). Its nice to imagine the memory of this nameless child fixed forever through the genius of words, better than any photograph ever could.

John Millais (Autumn Leaves).

Why Margaret? Apparently it's the name of a favourite character from Goethe's Faust (a fucking bore-fest so don't ask me to check).

Strangely for such a religious poet, there doesn't seem to be any promise of redemption or any overtly Christian message. Hopkins certainly had the innate sense and good taste not to stridently preach at any opportunity, unlike many current-day evangelicals! The achingly plaintive, elegiac air of resignation in the poem mirrors the mood of autumn evenings perfectly and always reminds me of my first autumn in England (for some reason the chord progression Fmaj7-Cmaj7-Amaj7-Dmaj7 evokes the same feelings in me).

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