“Spring and Fall” Under an Old Ash Tree

As we cross the solar border into summer, many may remark that this past spring was not very spring-like. With virus-chilled ghost-towns, biting cold winds, even snow in May (at least in Northeast Pennsylvania), spring seemed touched with something like death this year. Looking back, spring smelled and felt more like fall this year, making Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem about looking back, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child” a worthy meditation as we mourn with the poem’s characters, a little girl named Margaret and her older companion, over the passing of things from freshness to forgetfulness. Even in the awakening of new life and its thriving, there comes the reminder of the fleetingness of things, that all that lives must die.

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.

The freshness of spring is a doomed thing by the onset of summer heat. “Nature’s first green is gold,” Robert Frost’s famous poem exults, even as it agrees with Hopkins’s by concluding: “Nothing gold can stay.” In “Spring and Fall”, Hopkins brings the seasons of spring and fall together in the eyes and the image of a young child, Margaret, beholding the falling leaves in the spring of her life. And as she sees and senses the inevitability of death, she weeps. The older observer, too, is moved, but for different reasons—reasons of nostalgia and necessity. For every tear shed for the passing of things, there is a tear for our own preordained passing. After a poem like this, spring, a tree—even life itself—may never be the same again.

Familiar surroundings and personal orientation have provided inspiration for poets and peoples throughout the ages. It is a powerful mystery—a mystery that can take us where we belong. One fall, some time ago, I rounded up my students and led them out to a beautiful, ancient ash tree commanding the front lawn of our school’s campus. I have taken many students out there to talk about Robin Hood, but little did I know, walking towards that tree, that this year it would be different. The boys strewed themselves on the grass around the trunk with their books, as they always have, and I looked up into the branches, fast-growing bare, the air littered with fluttering yellow leaves.

I suddenly recalled a poem that my literature teacher had taught me when I was in the spring of my youth—a poem about fall and childhood—and it was then and there, standing under that golden unleaving tree with those children, that I understood the poem for the first time. I had memorized it when I was a young child and had carried it in my heart all those years for, as it seemed, that precise moment. I came home to that poem at last, having, I suppose, been on pilgrimage with it without even knowing it. I recited Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” as I never had before, with a new and real meaning. My eyes may have glistened through my glasses, and I knew why. None of my young companions, however, were the wiser as they pulled at their ties in the autumn air and swatted at leaves, waiting to talk about the bone-rattling battle between Little John and Eric o’ Lincoln at Nottingham Fair, and fair enough. They were not there yet. They were not ready.

And neither was I ready for the surprise that awaited me when I went into the Academic Dean’s rooms after that class to find him hearing recitations of Hopkins from his junior students. I sat in, listening to one boy struggle to recite. Then he stopped and said in frustration, “What is the point of learning this poem when I can’t understand what it means?” What glad words I had ready for him. Sometimes it takes years to learn what you already know—or perhaps to remember what you knew as a young child. Often, we do not see how the goods we gain will profit us or where they will take us. But God has a beautiful way of bringing His children round to the truth in His own good time.

As God brought that poem home to me, I know He will bring it home to that young man someday. We all know the joy of returning home, even when we do not leave our home. We all know the profundity of seeing something again for the first time. We all know these fulfillments of the heart. Whether in a poem, a tree, a piece of art, or a long-remembered conversation, returning to some familiar thing and finding new meaning, new significance, and new fulfillment is a vital aspect of the human journey.

Such revolutions are what is at stake in the never-ending distractions of life. They are the reason for the existence of good families, good schools, good parishes, and good communities: to plant perennials in the soul that may only be noticed and appreciated after years of blooming. These perennials include not only poetry like Hopkins’s, but the poetry of the Liturgy. The prayers and rhythms of Holy Mass and the Divine Office work their way into the soil of the heart, returning as unexpected fruit in the lives of children grown to adults, often when their savor is most needed, even as Mary kept all those things and pondered them in her heart. It is in these moments of unexpected comprehension after years of pondering that the salvation of a soul may well lie. This is what is at stake, and it is of eternal moment.

The old ash tree where I have read and re-read Robin Hood to young students and where I first truly discovered Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” is succumbing to the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle. It was only a matter of time. Its rugged and towering sides are being silently ravaged from within, and huge naked patches of sickness now stretch up to wither those massive, magnificent limbs. The great ash tree will die, and most likely be cut down this summer. It may never leave again. The site of so many of my memories will soon be a memory itself. As the tree falls to blight, so must all who are born, and so do we mourn, even as we rejoice in the summer of our lives.


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