A summary of a Hopkins poem
‘Spring’ is not as widely known as some of the other sonnets written by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), which is a shame: it’s a powerful evocation of the beauty of spring. It is that season, Hopkins reminds us, ‘When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’. Here is ‘Spring’, followed by a brief analysis of it.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
In summary, ‘Spring’ is like a number of other Gerard Manley Hopkins poems in that it’s a Petrarchan sonnet broken up into an octave beginning ‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring’ and a sestet beginning ‘What is all this juice and all this joy?’. The sonnet can be seen as a two-parter – which is how Seamus Heaney saw it – with the first eight-line unit describing and celebrating the phenomena of spring and the concluding six-line unit relating these phenomena to God.
The things which Hopkins describes that typify spring’s beauty are loaded with significance. Those thrush’s eggs ‘look [like] little low heavens’ not least because they, like the sky, are blue, a colour that (as if growing out of the ‘blooms’ in the previous line) will be explicitly mentioned in the seventh line. But this blue tinge also introduces a subtle link with the Virgin Mary, with whom the colour blue is strongly associated: Mary will be mentioned later in the poem when Hopkins refers to Christ as ‘maid’s child’.
The ‘echoing timber’ through which the thrush can be heard singing, given the reference to the ear in the next line, suggests the vibration or timbre of the warbling thrush’s song as well as the wooded timber from which it echoes. Hopkins’s distinctive style – his rolling round of word sounds, his fondness for assonance and alliteration and half-rhyme – contributes to this vibrating effect, as if all of spring is throbbing with these sounds and sights and other sensory experiences: weeds/wheels, lovely/lush, rinse/wring. These words, like the sights and sounds that Hopkins describes, and like that suggestion of timbre within ‘timber’ – are related yet distinct, similar yet separate, each having what Hopkins elsewhere described as ‘pied beauty’: dappled with difference, patterned yet displaying subtly distinct and distinctive patterns.
Hopkins’s title says it best: nothing is so beautiful as spring. And hardly anything is as beautiful as ‘Spring’, one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lesser-known sonnets, yet one that’s definitely worth reading, rereading, discussing, analysing, and returning to – whether during spring, summer, autumn, or winter.
The best edition of Hopkins’s poems to get is Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). It contains a pretty complete collection of Hopkins’s poetry and also includes highlights from his letters and journals, which are written in the same idiosyncratic manner and reflect Hopkins’s individual and distinctive way of looking at the world. It also has a helpful introduction and detailed notes on the poems.