Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet almost from the beginning, son of a poet and of a pious woman. In later life, he combined the two streams of his existence by becoming a Jesuit and by taking up again (in 1875) the writing of poetry, which he had left off when assuming the life of a religious, having destroyed all his earlier poems as too worldly. After his death and much later in 1918, the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, who had been a friend of Hopkins’s, saw that his poems were published. Today I would like to remark upon my two favorite poems of his, both frequently anthologized and both published in several other sites on the Internet.
The first poem to be considered is contemplative but a bit whimsical, even lightly teasing of a child who is sad or melancholy without a precise way of recognizing the cause or expressing her state. The speaker is an older individual, one who feels that he sees her situation well, and can enlighten her as to the sources of her frustration or grief. There is both a formal cause and an efficient cause: that is, the change of season is the formal cause of her grief, but her sadness has a deeper source, an efficient cause, “the blight man was born for.” Here is the poem in its entirety:
“Spring and Fall (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 comes 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, no nor mind, expressed/What heart heard of, ghost guessed:/It is the blight man was born for,/It is Margaret you mourn for.”
When the speaker himself is the sufferer, however, the matter is not even this blithe or teasing or capable of being sifted out as to the cause. In the second poem, which had no precise title but was instead given its first line as a title, we see the lyric voice itself as expressing the suffering, and it is far more serious in tone; there is not any hint herein that the speaker sees an end or a meaning to his grief, only that death itself will end the matter, a tough plight indeed in which to be. The expressive quality is here heightened, so that no one can possibly miss the meaning, and the formal cause is muddled together with the efficient cause in the line ” O the mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall,” as if there were no other explanation. There is even a Shakespearean quote from Edgar (as the madman Poor Tom) in King Lear, when the fugitives are wandering around out in the storm without cover and the misery is extreme: “Creep, wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind.” The unquantifiable misery in this poem is in stark contrast with Margaret’s almost self-centered complaint in the first poem, though both take a dim view of human happiness. Here, then, is the second poem:
“[No Worst, There Is None. Pitched Past Pitch of Grief]”
“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,/More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring./Comforter, where, where is your comforting?/Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?/My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief/Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing–/Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-/ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’./ O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small/Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,/Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all/Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
It is almost as if the second poem is an instance of the prediction from the first poem coming true: the speaker in the first poem predicts that “as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder by and by,” and sure enough, in the second poem it does, though “knowing why” is a little sketchy, and it is said to be because of the state of the mind’s “mountains,” which are “frightful, sheer,” and “no-man-fathomed.” But these poems have a therapeutic use, as poems often do, even if we aesthetically hesitate to use them as “medicine,” because that seems perhaps an inappropriate way to use literature. Here’s what I mean: if you are feeling really, really low, whether in spring and fall or in a rainstorm or on a dull, gray, stormy day, you can read “Spring and Fall,” and end by counselling yourself that after all, “it is Margaret [yourself] you mourn for,” and perhaps find some self-discipline that enables you to put the matter aside. But if you’re really feeling abysmal and totally lousy, you can read “[No Worst, There is None. Pitched Past Pitch of Grief],” and not only achieve catharsis, but go catharsis one even better: no matter how dreadful I’m feeling, I have only to read this second poem and I immediately perk up a little: not only did someone else feel as I do, but his expression of mourning for the human condition is even more extreme than anything I could possibly come up with, even at my most poetic and articulate, and my case is not, after all, that bad.
So, enjoy the upcoming summer if you are in the temperate zone, and if you are not, or when the summer cheats on you and issues a cold, rainy day or when it is over altogether, drag out the Gerard Manley Hopkins and give him a read: he has happy poems and sad poems, all beautifully evocative, but even if you only get acquainted with these two I’ve discussed today, you will be doing yourself a favor: Hopkins is one of those poets at heart who have shared their hearts and minds without stint, and who will always have something to say to you if you want to listen.