Hopkins Meditation 8

Fall Leaves“Spring and Fall”

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás 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 wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:


Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.




Upon reading Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” we soon realize that it is about much more than changing seasons or weather. The poet does depict a sort of nature scene, namely, the falling of leaves—what he calls “unleaving”–, but he then dips into thoughts more philosophical, more internal.

Hopkins’s “character” (the person he addresses) is a young girl named Margaret. She is in grief, perhaps crying, over the falling of the leaves at a place called Goldengrove. Let me pause here to note that the specific location is uncertain, although scholars have speculated on what particular place Hopkins refers to. For the meaning of the poem, the actual local and the actual girl don’t really matter. They represent nature and youth, respectively. The poet asks, perhaps a little surprised, if Margaret is able to have concern (“care for”) the “things of man,” of adults. This leads him to directly segue into the internal meanings of her current sorrow and what it will come to mean as she gets older.

There will be things worse and “colder” than the falling leaves that Margaret will see and experience as her “heart grows older.” She will not “spare a sigh” for these sights, but she will come to know why there is decay and the resulting “worlds of wanwood leafmeal.” (Can you picture the decaying, wet leaves turning into a sort of ground or powdery substance?) For now, the name of this sensation that Margaret is feeling doesn’t matter; it all amounts to the springing up of sorrow. Her heart has gained knowledge ahead of her mind and her mouth: she, too, is mortal and is thus decaying.

Thus we come to the last two lines and the crux of what Hopkins’ Margaret is discovering as she mourns the falling of the leaves. Her heart has unearthed and perceived the truth of the mortal condition: “It is the blight man was born for/ It is Margaret you mourn for.” Hopkins saves the epiphany for the last two lines, much as a Shakespearean sonnet does, and it’s almost a surprise to us the reader as it is to Margaret. Her tears for the falling leaves are really for herself. She, like the leaves, will decay.

“Spring and Fall” is not exactly a loss of innocence poem. Rather, it’s about discovering that there has been a fall. As the leaves fall and as she is sorrowful for their “unleaving,” Margaret realizes not the seasons spring and fall, but the springs of sorrow that well up because of the fall of mankind. As a child, this is new to her; as she ages, she will come to understand and feel it more and more.


So what do we take away from this? I suggest we remember our mortality. The natural world and our very bodies tell us this reality every day. Hopkins ends this particular poem with the epiphany about mortality, but we know that there is a comfort even in the midst of the decay. That comfort and hope is in Christ and the Father who sent him to combat and undo the results of the fall of mankind.

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About Kent Travis

If you are enjoying Kent Travis' teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What?  It's packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn't believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It's awesome!

Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.  




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