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Rhythm and Dictions in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”

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In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” the speaker of the poem describes the changing phases of an individual’s understanding about loss and death from a childhood to maturity. Throughout the poem, the child’s innocence is gradually lost over time as her weeping for the dying leaves turns into weeping for her own mortality. As if putting on a play for his readers, the poet incorporates visual images as well as aural effects into his poem. In “Spring and Fall”, Hopkins uses rhythm, word choice, and alliteration to fully integrate the readers, as if the readers were right next to Margaret as she undergoes these changes.

“Spring and Fall” is a short poem in one stanza; however, Hopkins’ choice of rhythm divides the poem into two distinct sections. The first section illustrates the childlike mind, while the second section portrays the grown-up perspective. In the first eight lines, the speaker addresses to Margaret, a young girl weeping over falling leaves. These eight lines contain a lyrical rhythm in couplet form. The beats are straightforward and do not cause accents to fall in unusual places. For example, “By and by, nor spare a sigh / Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;” (7-8) have a very even, four beats per line measure. In fact, when these lines are read out loud, their rhyming pattern is similar to a nursery rhyme. Since nursery rhymes usually have a sing-song effect, these first eight lines suggest a livelier tone. This is allows the readers to feel the lively spirit of young Margaret.

On the other hand, the last seven lines do not have this light lyrical effect. In fact, lines 9-15 have very uneven beats and sudden breaks in continuity. For example, in “will weep” (9) and “no matter, child, the name:” (10), the accented words are set right next to each other and the word “child” is inserted in the middle of the phrase, thus slowing down the speed of the poem. Hopkins calls this freedom of placing stressed syllables “sprung rhythm” (“Sprung”). Sprung rhythm often has stressed syllables or unstressed syllables that are placed one after another. The use of sprung rhythm creates an uneasy sound and interrupts the continuity. It drags the lines, creating a more somber and serious tone. Hopkins continues his use of sprung rhythm in “Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed” (12-13). The continuous stressed syllables in “no nor mind” (12), “heart heard” (13), and “ghost guessed” stretch the swiftness of these two lines. All of these heavy and slow sprung rhythms portray how adults tend to over analyze everything and thus create more complicated thoughts than children. Not only does the juxtaposition of lyrical rhythm to sprung rhythm contrasts the different ways of thinking, the change also allows the readers to aurally experience the time-machine effect. The aural integration incorporates a sense of time for the reader.

In addition to the uses of rhythms, Hopkins’ careful word choice creates vivid imagery, giving the readers a more realistic view of the scenery. In line 2, “Goldengrove” serves two interpretations. First, this word alludes to the Golden Grove at Llanasa, Flintshire, a village that is nearby Hopkins’ home. This place has a great house from the Elizabethan period that rests in a thousand acres of great trees and pastures (Lancashire). Second, the literal meanings of golden and grove illustrate a landscape with colors associated with the season. Rather than describing the scenery, the word “Goldengrove” enriches the imagery by depicting the vastness of the land and the colorful falling leaves. By using this allusion, Hopkins paints a more meaningful image to the readers.

Another example of using words to paint vivid images is “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie” (8). Here Hopkins is describing how the grown-up Margaret would not “spare a sigh” (7) even when the entire world is “unleaving”. First the word “wanwood” creates a pale image of the trees, giving the idea that winter is approaching. Second, the word “leafmeal”, which Hopkins derives from “piecemeal”, expresses a sharp impression of the leaves falling one by one, scattered among the ground. Lastly, “world” suggests the event of falling leaves extend beyond the Goldengrove. The use of hyperbole creates an image of endless horizon, which suggests the infinite numbers of the tress and leaves. Together, these three words illustrate the idea of countless leaves falling to the ground, creating a dramatic image for the readers. Because of this, the readers experience the event as if they were in the scene with Margaret.

In addition to the vibrant imagery, Hopkins’ diction also establishes the minute detail of Margaret’s character. In line 4, the phrase “fresh thoughts” (4) describes the unpolluted mind of the girl. The choice of using “fresh” instead of “young” suggests that Margaret has not been influenced by any outside thoughts. Her innocence is in its simplest and purest form, and her view of death is as simple as the dying leaves. Her weeping over dead leaves shows her naïveté. By using these words carefully, Hopkins allows the readers to see the simplistic ways of thinking in Margaret.

Another important technique of word choice is the use of homographs. Not only do these words allow the readers to have the omniscient view like the speaker, they also allow us to see what Margaret’s thoughts will mature into. Hopkins portrays this transformation by taking advantage of the multidimensional meanings in his title. “Spring” is a season often associated with “the beginning”, “happiness”, and “life”. However, other than describing the seasons, “Spring” can also mean to bounce or jump. This word gives a very childlike characteristic, associating Margaret’s lively young spirit to the springtime. On the other hand, “Fall” carries a heavier tone. The poet, born in England, chooses to use the word “Fall” instead of “Autumn” in the title of his poem.

“Fall” is an American word for the season; it is uncommon word for the British (Fall), but yet Hopkins makes a choice to use it. This suggests that there are other intentions for this word. Like the word Spring, it has more than one meaning. Other than describing the season, “Fall” can also mean to descend, or to drop from some level of height. Since the use of “Fall” is deliberate, Hopkins might be suggesting the Fall of man as found in the Bible. This fall of man signifies human mortality and suffering. By juxtaposing these two words, Hopkins makes a connection between the before and after the fall of man to Margaret’s maturity growth. The title of the poem “Spring and Fall” therefore allows the readers to know that the fate of Margaret’s grief would be dealing with human mortality and not just the decaying leaves.

Not only does Hopkins create a realistic image for the readers, he also adds sound effect through alliteration. Throughout the poem, the “s” alliteration is scattered in different places: “such sights” (6), “spare a sigh” (7), and “Sorrow’s springs” (11). The “s” sound imitates the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind. It also imitates the sound of one shuffling through the piles of fallen leaves on the ground. In the middle of the poem, Hopkins uses the “w” alliteration to mimic the sound of the blowing wind: “worlds of wanwood” (8) and “will weep” (9). Hopkins only uses the “w” sound in the middle because he wants to show the readers the strong wind that is causing thousands of leaves to fall. The addition of sound to image takes the effect a step further, making it even more real than before. It is as if the readers can hear the leaves whirling in the strong gusts of wind. By depicting the sound of the wind and the rustling leaves, Hopkins puts the readers in the scene, which further integrate the poem’s effect on the readers.

In “Spring and Fall”, Gerard Manley Hopkins uses rhythm, word choice, and alliteration to make his poem come alive to his readers. He uses his innovation of sprung rhythm in contrast to the straightforward, sing-song rhythm to demonstrate the phase of development from a child to an adult. He uses special word choices, homograph, and allusion to give the readers a better visual image of the event. Yet Hopkins does not stop there. He incorporates alliterations in his poem to depict the sound of the surrounding. Hopkins’ creativity and imagination with words allows him to fully animate poem that effectively integrates his readers with his poetry. Being a Catholic priest Hopkins warns his readers about mans mortality. Through Margaret he shows his readers that as man ages, our understanding of mortality changes as well. Through these vivid auditoral and visual imageries, Hopkins transfers his lesson to the character in the poem and to his readers as well.

Work Cited:

“Fall.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2006. Oxford University Press. Vanderbilt Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Nashville, TN. 13 September 2006.

Lancashire, Ian. Representative Poetry Online. 2005. RPO Editors, Department of English and University of Toronto Press. 13 September 2006

“Homograph.” Ask Oxford. 2006. Oxford University Press. 13 September 2006

“Sprung Rhythm.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 1 Nov. 2001. The Literary Dictionary Company. 13 September 2006.

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