‘Worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie’

There must have been hundreds of poems prompted by the melancholy scent of autumn in the air (as it is at the minute, towards the end of August), but one of the best must be ‘Spring and Fall’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), subtitled ‘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, nor no mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

There are so many things so perfectly expressed here: what seems the simple sorrow of a child at the dying, falling leaves; the painful adult knowledge of the world’s ways, and of death, and the painful knowledge too that your child will come to know this in his or her turn; and the feeling that the child is actually suffering from a sadness she can’t yet understand or articulate; and the awful thought of the child’s own mortality as well as of your own. As well as somehow being able to condense what seems like the central sorrow of human life into fifteen short lines, Hopkins has the most extraordinary ability to make words do things that perhaps only D.H. Lawrence, subsequently, would dare to attempt. That amazing line ‘Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie’… and then the harsh, simple brilliance of ‘blight’ transferred from the world of plants to the human world at the end: ‘It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for’.

Another reason I find Hopkins such a moving and compelling writer (not just a poet – his prose journals are also extraordinary) is that despite his Christianity (he was a Jesuit priest, in fact), which in another writer might perhaps lead to a somewhat distanced view of the physical world as less important than the spiritual world or the world to come, he has such an intensely felt relationship to the natural world. For me, Hopkins and Lawrence – and in a different way, Edward Thomas – are the writers who express most powerfully and movingly the amazingness of the world – and of the fact that the world, simply, is.