From the window of my college's tiny gym, I can see the tree that last year developed bright yellow leaves in the autumn, then shed them. I keep a special eye on it, because when the leaves turned yellow last year I kept thinking that I must photograph them, since I imagined they looked just like the "goldengrove" in Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall." Of course, every day I would forget, and then one morning I got up and they'd all fallen off! At that point I realised that I had, for what I then thought would be the only time in my life, seen goldengrove unleaving:
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, no, nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It was the blight man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Remember to pronounce the name Mar-ga-ret to get the rhythm right. This is not my favourite Hopkins poem, although it is the one I know by heart. My favourite would have to be "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," a poem so depressing that I'm not going to quote it here, beyond its most beautiful phrase, "like dead letters sent to dearest him that lives alas away." I told my students this summer that the theme of most Hopkins poems is, "Things are bad. And they're going to get worse," but looking out the gym window at the soon-to-be-Goldengrove tree, I think not of these sorrowful poems but rather of the one Hopkins poem that seems to me not to be so, "God's Grandeur." I love this poem.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God:
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,
And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil
And wears man's smudge, and shares man's smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West wind
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
I don't believe in God most of the time, but in the spring I waver. The world looks dead, and it comes back to life: that always seems a miracle to me, and that seeming miraculousness brings a suspicion of God. I often think of this poem in the spring, then. But I think of it even more in the autumn, when the sun glints off the yellow and pale and hectic red leaves in that peculiar keen light that seems unique to fall. I come out of my house, or my building, in October, and I think, The world is charged with the grandeur of God. And these days, for some reason I haven't quite worked out, I have been thinking repeatedly of the line "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." Perhaps because, despite whatever odd setbacks there were this afternoon, I have been coming out of the trammels of Mr. Fallen and am amazed that this should be possible; perhaps because I have come to recognise that while I'll never be free of that unhappiness, happiness will grow over it, or from under it, or any way regardless of it.