Spring and Fall

Poem: Spring and Fall
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Spring and Fall

to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Óver Góldengróve unléaving?
Leáves, líke the thíngs of mán, you
Wíth your frésh thoughts cáre for, cán you?
Áh! ás the héart grows ólder
Ít will cóme to súch sights cólder
Bý and bý, nor spáre a sígh
Though wórlds of wánwood léafmeal líe;
And yét you wíll weep ánd know whý.
Nów no mátter, chíld, the náme:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the sáme.
Nor móuth had, nó nor mínd, expréssed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It ís the blíght mán was bórn for,
It ís Márgarét you móurn for.


A young girl named Margaret weeps to see the falling leaves. Our poet watches, and speaks to her, or imagines himself speaking to her. Her tears for the leaves he sees as signifying a broader sympathy for “the things of man.” She is still young enough to weep for these, is not yet inured to it, deadened by familiarity: “as the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder / by and by.” Or is she immune to this desensitization? “And yet you will weep and know why.”

She will still weep, but not over leaves, for it was never leaves that were the source of her weeping. “Sorrow’s springs are the same.” There is only one source of true lamentation, and if we appear to grieve over the intimation of winter, that is only an outward name we give to the one true sorrow, “the blight man was for”:

It is Margaret you mourn for.

The title is, of course, a pun: to spring, to leap, and then to fall. Spring: the “fresh thoughts” of the young child. Fall: the growing older, colder. Yet the spring of the child is meeting the fall, there is not spring followed by fall, but spring and fall intertwined and inextricable. And indeed the very fall is the source of “Sorrow’s springs.” The seasons change, but the fact is eternal; once again:

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Addendum (October 24, 2016)

After spending more time with this poem, it occurred to me that the above misses the essential fact: Margaret is not the true subject of this poem. It is rather the speaker whose tears we see most vividly. The key is the line:

And yet you will weep and know why.

How does he know that Margaret will weep, and that she will know her weeping’s cause? Only because he himself is weeping over himself, and knows it. In just the same way he knows that her heart will grow colder to the falling leaves. In both instances, he is projecting his own development onto her. We may even imagine he is totally wrong about Margaret, about her present and about her future. It does not matter: the question is why he thinks of her in this way. Once we think to ask that question, we, too, “know why.”

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