Mamacita says: I first encountered Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall and Robert Burns’ John Anderson, My Jo in a college course. Unfortunately, the professor was a jaded, bored, boring man who considered himself far too important to be teaching a group of eager undergrads, and who turned every selection into a joke. Both poems, he taught us, were about old people who were about to die. No biggie, that. Death. Common theme. Moving right along. . . .
A lot of treasure went undiscovered that semester, thanks to him. He knew there was gold in that book and even more gold seated in the room, but he did not bestir himself to go a’digging for it. Too much trouble. He held the key to a treasure chest and did not bother to use it. Never once did he tell us that poetry was awesome and fantastic and heartbreaking and thrilling and bloody and pathetic and sweet and sour and bitter and lusty and sexy and mind-boggling and dirty and just plain wonderful unless it wasn’t.
A few years later, I encountered this poem again, in Jean Kerr’s How I Got To Be Perfect. Jean and her husband Walter, upon realizing – with horror – that while their kids seemed to know an awful lot about sports and movies and fun, not one of their kids knew anything about poetry, instituted “Culture Night,” wherein each child had to memorize a poem and recite it to the family once a week. It went over like a ton of bricks the first few times, and then took off like a rocket as the boys gradually gained an understanding and appreciation of form, rhyme, meter, patterns, theme, and inner meanings. (The Common Room has a fantastic post about Jean and Walter Kerr’s “Culture Hour.” I highly recommend that y’all go read it.)
One night, after Jean’s son Colin had finished his recitation of John Anderson, My Jo,, Jean burst into tears. The boy said to her, “Mom, it is Margaret you mourn for.” It was true.
I cannot think of either poem now, without tears. The good kind. I teach my students that both poems are, first and foremost, about love: the kind of love that lasts forever.
John Anderson, My Jo, by Robert Burns
JOHN ANDERSON, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonnie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snow;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo!
John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill tegither;
And monie a canty day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
But hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.
Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as 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 will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Thank you, Jean Kerr, for teaching me that poetry rocks. The university couldn’t be arsed to do it.