“‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free….”–Shaker hymn

In honor of the fall and of the upcoming American Thanksgiving season, this post is dedicated to all gentle melancholiacs who at the same time feel affinities with the fall weather and the approaching change of season.  Those of you Canadian readers who have already celebrated the earlier (October) Canadian Thanksgiving can still perhaps relate to this post and its subject, due to the fact that parts of Canada at least are still having relatively warm weather for this time of year, which means that they are no colder than a lot of areas in the Northern U. S.

This post centers on one of my favorite poems of all time, which tantalized and captivated me from the first time I heard it, feeling as I did so much in sync with its notions and ideas.  The main thing I want to stress about it, in fact, is that its obvious complexity, which centers around Gerard Manley Hopkins’s innovative style of what has come to be called “sprung rhythm,” hides an absolute clarity of line and simplicity of emotional statement often overlooked when the poem is discussed.  The poem is “Spring and Fall:  to a Young Child,” and as it appears on at least one internet site already in its complete version (www.readbookonline.net), I can freely reproduce it here without copyright violation, though I intend to give also Hopkins’s original stresses on the words, which indicate his notion of sprung rhythm for the poem.  Here goes:

Spring and Fall:  To a Young Child

“Márgarét, are you gríeving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?/Leáves, like 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 will 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.”

My basic idea about this poem is that everyone, regardless of academic background or love or disinclination to whatever degree for poetry, innately and instinctively can understand this poem, because it is so very simple.  One can make false difficulties by concentrating or focusing on the accent marks, but the melancholy emotion discussed in the poem and its source, and the dramatic lyric voice of the adult looking on at the child and in the poem speaking to her and beyond the situation as well are simple:  we grieve for our mortality, as we see evidence of it in the seasons of change, which are especially spring and fall (with here an emphasis on fall).  Summer and winter, by contrast, are seasons of stability, but we always feel our own changes more in spring and fall, as we see the evolutions around us in nature.

But for the benefit of those who may doubt or still have questions, let’s take it line by line.  Margaret, the young child, is addressed by an indulgent but realistically inclined adult, who asks if she is sad at the change from summer to fall.  Leaves, he tells her, are like the passing moments and possessions and years of man, and because her thoughts are “fresh,” and therefore not accustomed by many years’ accumulation to the rotation of seasons, she can still be made melancholy in a child’s simple, somewhat clueless, and inarticulate way.  He speaks perhaps more to himself than to Margaret when he tells her that over the course of time, her “heart” will “come to such sights colder by and by,” and here perhaps the only ambiguity–and a creative one at that–creeps in:  not only does the word “colder” indicate that her heart will be “colder,” or less moved to grieve over such a simple thing, but also the sights themselves will be “colder,” or more momentous in human terms.  He indicates that her grieving then will be over things she can assign motives to, no longer the ones like falling and dead leaves, which make her sad without her knowing really why.  All sorrows, he hints, are really from the same well of emotion, regardless of their surface causes.  She has not been able to “mouthe” the feelings, nor to analyze them, he further notes for her benefit, but her “heart” has heard its far away death knell, and her “ghost,” or spirit, has guessed what is to come in the distant future.  He tells her finally that “it” (meaning not only mortality, but grieving over it and what cannot be changed, and centering oneself in nature on the presumption that man is the center of the universe in a humanistically prejudiced sort of way) is “the blight man was born for,” and then ends the poem by saying that she mourns in reality for herself, and not simply for the fallen leaves.  One could wonder at this juncture if again he really is not talking to himself more than to the child, whose understanding of these issues he raises is likely to be limited, but we have the poem we have, and it is not a dramatic duologue, but a dramatic lyric with an unknown adult speaker, so we are in the dark as to Margaret’s reaction.

There are also those who find difficulties in Hopkins’s neologisms, his newly coined words, but it is quite simple if we take them just as they seem to mean:  it is the neat compression of feeling and thought which produces them, and they are so obvious as to be even commonsensical, were they not also highly poetic.  “Goldengrove” is a grove of colored leaves, either in spring or fall.  “Wanwood” and “leafmeal” refer to the falling and dying leaves and dead trees, or denuded trees, left bare by whatever means or conditions.  These compressions are especially clever because they convey the word pictures of what the two people are seeing or have recently seen, and call up associations for the reader in an especially innovative way.

The submerged subjects here–and every poem has submerged subjects, be they ever so simple–are projection and empathy.  We are led to believe that Margaret, the child in question, empathizes with nature and feels “low” because she sees the decline of the fall season around her (and “sorrow’s springs” is of course a pun on the season of “spring,” which indicates that as long as Margaret lives, there will be a renewal in the spring, which, however, will be sad in its own way because there is always decline to come).  But with a certain amount of cynicism, the speaking adult says that it is not so much empathy as projection, that is, projection of her own feelings about being human onto the weather and nature, which in poetry circles is known as “the pathetic fallacy.”

Finally, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “gift” of “being simple” and “free” in his self-expression is a gift to us his readers as well, because the shortness of the poem makes for easy memorization and recitation, two activities which used to be a large part of our literary culture, and which still should be.  People used to get together and recite poems as eagerly as they read stories to each other aloud, and told tales, and sang old ballads.  Therefore, this poem is my candidate for such endeavors, which should be started young, as young as one might guess the fictive “Margaret” is:  acquaintance with words poetic which one can recite under one’s breath to oneself sometimes in affection for the lines and enjoy again and again by this method is a gift which children never outgrow.  The funny thing is, in my childhood–which was some time ago–if one saw an adult person mouthing something to himself or herself aloud and no one else was close by, there was an even chance that it was a poem, not just a grocery list or a grumbling about something negative which had happened, or mental illness manifesting itself.  Now, it usually means that the person has a smart phone ear bud in and is conversing with someone else by that means!  Whatever your case, if you have an ear bud in and are talking to your best chum, why not take the opportunity to recite a short poem of your choice to them, even just a limerick:  words are so much a part of what it is to be human, that we should never forget how much of a gift they are from other people, and how wonderful it is to share the best and most glowing, witty, and beautiful of them with another person!


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

5 responses to ““‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free….”–Shaker hymn

  1. I am looking forward to my first Thanksgiving, although i really should find out what the protocol is for it…fantastic journey through a poem, I do love a good insight and more when on offer. I shall think of a suitably humorous and not quite family limerick for the Thanksgiving table for which you shall have the blame, naturally.


    • The protocol is, bring anything suitable in a bottle, or any fancy carbohydrate dish that’s seasonal–the fancier the better. By all rights, if you’re going to let me languish in blame for your limerick, then I ought to have lied and told you (as the guys did to Raj on “Big Bang Theory” about Thanksgiving) that the custom was that foreigners had to bring gifts to Americans on Thanksgiving. That would have served you right! He-he! I guess my listed protocol is close enough, however–it just has to be ingestible. Have a great one! And welcome!


      • Ingestible…very good advice…I don’t want to make that mistake again. Good advice and gratefully accepted, thank you. I watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory once and didn’t laugh once…I think my humour is slightly more darker than that lol.


  2. I love this poem, and your explication of it, Victoria. Did you know there’s a film called Margaret it inspired? Pretty good, as I recall, too.


    • Thanks for the praise, Richard. As always, you bring a wealth to the comment column, in this case the info about the film called Margaret. My brother is a real movie buff, I’ll have him hunt if out for me, if he’s willing. Have a great Thanksgiving.


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