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Are We Grieving? (thoughts on some poetry)

Are We Grieving? (thoughts on some poetry)


There are two poems for fall that I love best. One, “Ode to the West Wind,” I’ve written about in Reflections. The other is by Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of my all-time favorite poems. (Check out “Pied Beauty” for sheer glory of words.)

The Hopkins is called “Spring and Fall,” and has the dedication, “to a young child,” and it goes like this:

“Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! 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.”

Okay, first of all. First of all. “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” Hello?! The genius of that line kills me. Just now, I read it, whispered the words to myself and tears came to my eyes. We, jaded adults, looking at worlds of forests brought low, brought to “leafmeal” and not “spare a sigh.”

And is that not what we are doing these days. Forests up in smoke. Insects, birds, mammals, all manner of medicinal plant lost forever, and do we spare a sigh?

autumn-tree_Mk7MHIuuBut Margaret, the little girl, is crying over the loss of the yellow leaves of Goldengrove in autumn. (Yes, it makes me think of Lothlorien nearly every time. But I digress.) She is crying, she is grieving for the leaves that fall every year. But she probably doesn’t know that they go every year. She probably doesn’t yet know to trust that Spring will come again.

And of course, in the poem, she is Spring. And adults, especially those considering our mortality, are Fall. And yet, how sad it is that it is we, closer to death, who ignore, who don’t consider, who do not spare a sigh for the seeming death of each year as the Wheel turns.

And worse, that we do not share Margaret’s sadness where and when we know real, permanent destruction. Still, the poet recognizes the kinship between Margaret and the adult, between Spring and Fall. “It is the blight man was born for; / It is Margaret you mourn for.”

It is our own deaths this season invites us to consider. And of course, then, the deaths of those who have left us their gifts. One of the gifts my father left me was this poem, and the tools to think and write about it. And that gift, really, came from his mother and her finishing school education and life abroad before the Depression. And from his grandfather and grandmother, both brilliant in nearly opposing ways. And from my grandmother’s native love of language. And from my father’s Berkeley education and the students who were his teachers throughout his 30 years of teaching at Penn State.

My Ancestors, my Mighty Dead, have given me this poem to read and play with and turn over in my mouth like cinnamon candy. It is a good poem. And it has good things to say.

Hopkins lived in the Victorian era and was one of the greatest poets of the time. He was certainly (in my entirely biased opinion) one of, if not the greatest creator of short poems in that time. London, where he was born, was full of smoke and coal and steam pistons. Forests were being cut down to feed the engines of war and industry.

And so, again, in what seems prescient, oh-so-pertinent to our time, he writes in “Inversnaid,”

trees growing in a bayou

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;        15
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

What would the world be? Well, my dears, we are finding out, a bit at a time, and faster every day. And these words, this admonition, come echoing to us over 150 years. Are we listening? Am I? Are you?

And so not only do I call John Dawson Carl Buck, Ann Dawson Torrey, Annie Elizabeth Dawson, and John Douglas Dawson among my Mighty poetic Dead, but I also call the name of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He, among my Mighty Dead of Inspiration, or of Spirit, if you will, speaks to me today, and so I write to you. Of life, death, failing, falling, and destruction that may presage rebirth. We shall see, eh?


Every year, when I can find someone who will sit still long enough, I read them the longer poem, Shelley’s, “Ode to the West Wind.” I am, if I do say so myself, one of the best readers of poetry I know. That is to say, reading poetry aloud is a strength of mine.

I invite you, then, to sit still long enough to watch me on Facebook Live as I read to the West Wind today. I’ll be recording to The Way of the River page, and then I’ll share it to my personal page, so if you have the time to sit still and listen, please do. I’d love to have you.


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