Gerard Manley Hopkins was an innovator whose poetry was not published until decades after his death. Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex, which is near London. He attended Balliol College, University of Oxford. While attending the university, Hopkins was sporadically occupied with verse writing. His passion for religion becomes clearly evident during this time through his poems. His poems revealed a very Catholic character, most of them being abortive, the beginnings of things, ruins and wrecks, as he called them. (Gardner 6) In 1866, he converted to Roman Catholicism, during the Oxford movement.
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John Henry Newman received him into the Roman Catholic Church. He left Oxford to become a priest, and entered the Jesuit Order in 1868. This is the time when Gerard Manley Hopkins presented a conflict of a man torn between two vocations, religion and the aesthetic world. He also presented a heroic struggle of a man who was so dedicated to one profession that he deliberately sacrificed another profession based on the belief that God willed it to be so. Hopkins is well known for his creation of the term inscape. Inscape can be considered as an individual distinctive beauty. The sensation of inscape, any vivid mental image, is known as instress. Gardner 11)
For Hopkins, inscape was more than sensory impression. It was an insight; by Divine grace into an ultimate reality by seeing the pattern, air, and melody as it were God’s side. (Gardner 27) In “Spring and Fall”, Hopkins demonstrates a separation between humanity and nature and a separation between humanity and God. His use of imagery and his sympathetic tone allows the readers to make both distinctions and similarities between adult and child, nature and man, and conscious and intuitive knowledge. The poem is addressed to a child. It has a direct clarity of rhyme, which it almost sounds like a nursery rhyme.
The speaker addresses the child, trying to understand how she thinks and feels. “Ma’gare’t, are you gri’eving / Over Goldengrove unleaving? ” (Lines 1-2 Norton) It seems as though the speaker is attempting to meet the child on her terms by using this diction. He is implicitly making the connection between the turning of the seasons and death. While the turning of the season will bring a new spring, human seasons will bring a final departure and final “fall” (Ellis 151). The next two couplets imply that his knowledge of man is more important and melancholy than the falling of the leaves. Lea’ves, like the things of man, you / with your fresh thoughts care for, can you? ” (Lines 3-4 Norton).
This reflective tone allows us to experience the sympathy the speaker feels toward the child. The sorrow she feels at the present time will not go away as she grows older. Its presence will remain, but for different reasons. Adulthood may bring an end to the grief of nature’s autumns, but it will not bring an end to tears and sorrow. “A’h! a’s the heart grows o’lder / It will come to such insights colder / By and By, nor spare a sign / Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; / And yet you will weep and know why” (lines 5-9).
The use of alliteration helps to emphasize the ultimate reality of this child’s pain. The tone becomes stronger and less sympathetic. “yet you will weep and know why”(line 9), is both the child’s and Hopkins’s recognition of mortality. The final couplets offer an accurate depiction of the poem’s true meaning. “It is’ the bli’ght ma’n was bo’rn for, / It is Margaret you mourn for” (lines 14-15 Norton). Nature’s silent eloquence of death has caused Margaret to intuitively realize that there are other sources of death and grief, not life. (153 Ellis) It is almost as though she comes to terms with her spirit of adulthood and fate.
This could also be a way of Hopkins coming to terms with his mortality. The distinction and similarity between child and adult is quite clear in this poem. Both make the point that there is no spiritual spring of innocence. “Fall” has been the only season from birth, and will remain so until the final fall of death. (154 Ellis) Also, both are subject to fall, but in nature’s seasons spring will come again. His sympathetic tone portrays his priesthood, and his imagery portrays his poetic abilities. This man unconsciously performed both remarkable tasks simultaneously.