Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Goldengrove Unleaving": Hopkins' "Spring and Fall," Christina Rossetti's "Mirrors of Life and Death," and the Politics of Inclusion

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Goldengrove Unleaving": Hopkins' "Spring and Fall," Christina Rossetti's "Mirrors of Life and Death," and the Politics of Inclusion

Article excerpt

(For Isobel Armstrong)

The now quite familiar argument for the inspiration behind Hopkins' "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" asserts that lines from the poem describing Margaret's poignant response to the falling leaves may have been derived from George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. (1) As the argument goes, the little girl at the novel's opening, whether Maggie Tulliver or Eliot's authorial persona, becomes Hopkins' Margaret, both of whom lament the all-too-soon demise of the season that in turn analogizes the ephemeralness of things. Hopkins had only recently read The Mill on the Floss (1860), and on February 22, 1881, had even solicited John Henry Newman's estimation of Eliot. Heretofore unknown, however, are the subtle echoes, perhaps even direct borrowings, between Hopkins' "Spring and Fall," his "song to the decaying year" ("Now I am minded"), and Christina Rossetti's "Mirrors of Life and Death," with its "long sequence of mourning images." (2) This essay, then, seeks to document the poem's indebtedness to Christina Rossetti and, as well, Hopkins' profound desire to be included in an anthology connected to her.

In comparing these two "Latecomers to the Tractarian Movement," Margaret Johnson finds "many echoes of theme and approach" in Hopkins' "early Oxford poems," a "common theological and aesthetic base," "concordances of subject and metaphor," but each "without knowledge of the other's [lyrics]." (3) But Johnson, and for that matter Rossetti's biographer Jan Marsh, who also acknowledges Rossetti's mentoring of Hopkins, ignore altogether the shaping influence of "Mirrors of Life and Death" on "Spring and Fall." And so too does Jerome Bump, who otherwise demonstrates convincingly that Rossetti, Hopkins' "icon" and "the woman who was to inspire some of his best art in the 1860s," provided him "examples of simple, unified songs" which liberated him from the fetters of pseudo-Keatsian "excesses of his early word-painting." (4) No doubt, says W. H. Gardner, "the poetry of Christina Rossetti exerted a strong influence" on Hopkins' early composition) Perhaps more than anything else, Christina Rossetti modeled for Hopkins the poetry of religious faith in which the two--poetry and religion--become interfused and inseparable. That she also remained chaste for the kingdom of heaven's sake might have appealed to him. "Her religion imposed duties so imperative that she could not compromise with them, but, more than that, it made even marriage an impossibility." (6) The two also share the casual openings to poems. "Few poets," says C. M. Bowra, "have her gift of beginning a poem with the most homely and humble words or of using phrases which are consciously trite or commonplace, only to rise to some sudden burst and thereby to show that even in the drabbest conditions there are possibilities of dazzling splendour" (p. 264). In this Hopkins is easily Rossetti's match, with such matter-of-fact, ordinary, and mundane openings that give way to explosive images: "Nothing is so beautiful as Spring" ("Spring"), "On ear and ear two noises too old to end" ("The Sea and the Skylark"), "I remember a house where all were good" ("In the Valley of the Elwy"), "Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise" ("Hurrahing in Harvest"), "Sometimes a lantern moves along the night" ("The Lantern out of Doors"), and "Some candle clear burns somewhere I come by" ("The Candle Indoors").

Considering how much of Hopkins' poetry derived from actual experiences aesthetically appropriated, how much of it is "'autobiographical' fact," it is curious that "Spring and Fall" was "not founded on any real incident," suggesting, perhaps, the poem's mythopoetic origin. (7) Jeffrey B. Loomis observes the poem's ideological affinity to Robert Herrick's ephemeral "Daffodils" and sees Hopkins' young girl modeled in part after Goethe's Margarete: "The childlike epithet may even allude to Goethe's too-innocent heroine Gretchen (Margarethe) in Faust One; of all the Continental writers of his century, Goethe is the only one who receives repeated discussion in Hopkins' letters. …

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