Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 1

I thought I might do a short series of reflections on poems I love for the New Year.  So I went to my poetry shelf and unburdened it of too many volumes.  I’ll have to replace them soon as I shall not be able to beat a path to my desktop.  Having spent some hours of delightful perusal of words fashioned, formed and shaped by great craftsmen and craftswomen over many years, I shall start with this beautiful poem composed by the great convert Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), in honour of the little girl Margaret.  ;

Spring and Fall:
to a young child

Márgarét, áre you grieving
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.

I suppose we’ve all studied the great G.M.Hopkins, SJ, at school and have had to learn many of his wonderfully unusual musical poems by heart.  You, like I, probably wrestled with his sprung rhythm and his concept of inscape.  However, it’s all really in the ear and all the jargon just serves as a smoke screen.   A poem is always written for the ear, not the eye!! I was always transfixed at school when our great teacher Mr. Michael McLoughlin, B.A. (Hons) read The Windhover.  (The school in question is the great O’Connell School, North Richmond Street, the foundation stone having been lain in 1828 by the great Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell.)  I could not resist reading it aloud to my younger brother Pat when I returned home to our then old townhouse in Ballybough.  (North Inner City, Dublin).  I think my father thought I was mad – he could never fathom why I was always reading things aloud!  
This poem is dedicated to a young girl who simply cannot understand why the leaves of the beautiful trees have to fall and die.  It is at a deeper level a poem about the inevitability of ageing and death, the inevitability of suffering in life.  It is a poem about all our griefs, whether big or small.  Like all good poetry it does not offer any answers.  Rather it sings the soul song of the mystery of the thing, or more accurately the mystery of the very human condition.

I was always drawn to GMH’s simpler lyrics like this one above.  “Unleaving” is a rather beautiful third person form of “unleafing” from  the verb to “unleaf”, that is to let fall its leaves.  There is, of course, a pun within this formulation also, in so far as Margaret may not get to leave Goldengrove soon.  This is where poetry really delights me – the possibility here of two meanings.  Then, we have the juxtaposition of the young girl (youth) with age and ageing and death which are hinted at from the beginning of the poem almost.

There is something sad in this little poem, and it is quite therapeutic to let a tear fall for little Margaret, too!  Then Hopkins’ usual compounds of old and odd words like “wanwood leafmeal”.  Wan can mean “dark” from Old English or indeed our own “pale and tired” and “leafmeal” is probably a hint at the word “piecemeal” that is, bit by bit.  Hence a rather unpoetic, prosaic rendering might be…”the dark forest is shedding its leaves bit by bit.”

He realizes that the child will weep, because weeping is part of the human condition after all.  Indeed, psychotherapists tell us that unwept grief eats the soul away.  How true!  Again, he tells her she will know why she is weeping.  GMH was after all a convert Jesuit priest, employed by the great John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) as professor of Greek and Latin at the Catholic University in Dublin, forerunner of UCD.  This poem, like all his others is suffused with Christian doctrine.  Then there is the hard and hitting line “It is the blight man was born for” which is, of course, a reference to the original sin of Adam and Eve, who through their greed brought sin into the world.  Hence also the title “Spring and Fall” which is quite complete and/or circular – the Fall refers both to the fall of leaves and to the Biblical Fall of Adam and Eve.  The spring, of course, is new life which is only hinted at in the title.  Other poems of Hopkins’s cover the spring amply!

When we grieve for things; when we grieve for others; when we grieve for the loss of our parents, we are really grieving for our own loss of self, for own inevitable leaving of this sentient world.  Hence the grim last line:  “it is Margaret you mourn for.”  Well, reader, all you have to do is insert your own name in this lovely lyric and read it again.  I promise you, it is really profound.

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