Golden Leaf 2

Some lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins are an aesthetic pleasure just to repeat mentally or audibly:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Those words come, of course, from his well-known poem Spring and Fall: to a young child.  The title prepares us for the poem by telling us that it is addressed to a child, who we know from the first word of the work is named Margaret.  Hopkins speaks to this little girl in his thoughts.

It is not a difficult poem in its overall meaning, though one must step carefully in some lines through Hopkins’ sometimes convoluted language.

To aid in understanding the poem, I will separate it into sections.  Let’s begin:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Margaret is grieving — is sad — about “Goldengrove unleaving” — about a grove of trees, that we picture as golden with autumn because of its name, losing its leaves  (un-leaving/un-leaf-ing), as happens in autumn.  So Margaret, who is very young, is sad to see the leaves falling, the beauty of the grove gradually fading.

Those first lines tell us why the poem is called Spring and Fall; Margaret, the little girl, is Spring.  She is in childhood, the springtime of life; Goldengrove, with its falling leaves, is Fall.  By using the two elements in this way, Hopkins is setting up the reader for the rest of the poem, in which we shall find that Fall is also equated with the autumn of life — life’s dissolution.

Hopkins continues in his questioning:

Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

The poet is surprised that Margaret, with her young, fresh, child’s thoughts, can be so concerned for the leaves of Nature, as concerned as though they were “things of man,” human possessions, as though she were losing something that belonged to her.  

He tells her that will change:

Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

As she and her emotions grow older, she will not be so affected by such a sight; her heart will “come to such sights colder,” with less emotional involvement.  That will happen “by and by,” as she ages, and eventually she will be so little affected by the falling leaves that she will not spare even a sigh,  “though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie,” that is, even though whole worlds of forests with fading leaves (wanwood:  wan = faded, wood = forests) should lie accumulating on the ground.  “Leafmeal,” as Hopkins uses it here, is a very interesting term, formed by using the Old English word mael, meaning a “measure” of something.  When used as a suffix, it means something is happening “measure by measure,” that is, gradually, like saying a field  of grain was cleared “sheafmeal,” that is, “sheaf by sheaf.”  So here Hopkins is saying that all the autumn forests lie “leafmeal,” that is, falling and piling up leaf by leaf, countless scattered leaves.  “Meal” of course also means grain ground fine — as in “cornmeal,” — so we have an undertone in this word of the leaves gradually falling apart as they decay — transforming from leaves to soil.

And yet you wíll weep & know why.

Though Margaret will gradually lose her sensitivity to the sight of forests losing their leaves, she nonetheless will weep — she will continue to experience that sadness of loss that formerly had been associated with falling leaves — and she will then know why.  Here Hopkins begins to tell us the “why”:

Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow’s springs are the same.

He tells Margaret that it does not matter what the “name” is — what reason you give for your sadness, whether it is sorrow from leaves falling, or from losing a friend, or from anything else — “sorrow’s springs are the same.”  All sorrow springs from the same source — it originates in the same thing — it happens for the same reason.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed: 

What neither Margaret’s mouth nor yet her mind — her thoughts — had yet expressed, her heart was nonetheless already feeling, and that was because on a deeper level, the reason had been “ghost-guessed”; her “ghost” — meaning her spirit — already knew  the reason.  It had already determined the cause — the source from which her sorrow for the falling leaves had come, as well as the source of all sorrow that was to come to her.  And in the last two lines, Hopkins reveals what it is that her spirit already knew, what it was that caused her to grieve for the falling of leaves in “Goldengrove”:

It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for. 

The “blight man was born for” is aging and death.  All sorrow springs, Hopkins says, from the first unconscious knowledge, which the “ghost” or spirit within us knows, that everything that is born — whether leaves or trees or humans — will someday die.  And that is why he tells the little girl that it is not the falling of the leaves  she is mourning, on that autumn day in her childhood; it is her own mortality:

It is Margaret you mourn for.

So you see, it is not a difficult poem, once one becomes accustomed to Hopkins’ liking for archaic terms and convoluted phrasing.

I have to add, however, that as much as I like certain lines of the poem and the poem itself, there are two things that trouble:  the first is leaving the reader to somewhat laboriously unravel the “Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed” lines, which are not very poetic in their complexity; the second is the constant feeling that the last two lines, “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for,” should read instead,

It is the blight that man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for. 

Without the added that, the line seems ever out of beat, out of step, out of measure, “verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme” as the old Simon and Garfunkel song goes.  It just sounds better and reads better with that added.



  1. Diane Geraci

    Why would you try to improve on a poem that is already beautiful and excellent. I always loved this poem and memorized it at 16 years old. I wouldn’t change “one” single word.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.