Thursday, April 14, 2011

Spring and Fall: To A Young Child

Spring and Fall: To A Young Child (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words 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 heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

When I first heard that Natalie Merchant's new album would be called Leave Your Sleep, I was deeply offended. I felt personally insulted, cruelly and ironically mocked. How dare she say that to me! How could she?!

There is an explanation for this irrational (read: insane) behavior. Sleep has not always come easy for me. In recent years I have gone through some severe bouts of insomnia that frequently rendered me mentally and physically useless. Going for weeks on end with less than an hour of sleep per night can turn you into a deranged human being.

In the midst of one of these long and miserable bouts of sleeplessness, I was supposed to go attend to a particular work-related obligation, along with my spouse. But when the day came, I had not only run into the wall, I was sliding down it slowly. When we arrived at our destination, I told my husband that I just couldn't do it. I told him to go ahead without me, to give me just 45 minutes to sleep in the car and then come back and get me and I would be good as new. I rolled down the windows to cope with the searing mid-summer heat and put the seat back as far as it would go. Within minutes I was out cold.

But before long I heard footsteps coming up to the window and stopping. I couldn't believe 45 minutes could possibly go by so quickly. I hoped that my husband, seeing me sleeping so peacefully, would have pity on me and just let me go for a little while longer. But instead I felt his hand gently stroking my cheek and then cupping my face. There was a part of me that appreciated the tenderness of this gesture, but the part that was appreciative was overtaken by the part that was sleep-deprived and raging. I couldn't open my eyes and I couldn't even speak coherently. I wanted to say, "I'm not ready, 15 more minutes." What came out was something like this, "Ehhhhhh!!!" The same high-pitched, squealing noise you make when you are a kid and your mom is trying to wake you up. It was out-and-out refusal on my part, expressed with not a little annoyance. He took the hint. After a few moments, he gently slid his hand off my face and I heard his footsteps go back slowly in the opposite direction.

It was too late, though. Now I was awake and quickly filling with guilt about my refusal to get with the program. I forced my eyes open and dragged my dizzy, weary body to the building I was intended to be in. When I went inside, I found my husband and apologized for being immovable and hateful. I told him I just couldn't believe it had been 45 minutes already. He looked at me with a puzzled expression. "It hasn't been 45 minutes. It's only been 15 minutes." My rage came back quickly. "WHAT??? Then WHY did you wake me up?!?!" He said, "I didn't." I said, "Well, then, who was stroking my cheek?" We looked at each other silently for a few moments and then I said, "Oh."


For weeks after this event, I would tell this story to my friends and when it came to the punchline, their reactions were always the same. They howled with laughter - laughter that was mixed with more than a little disgust. They re-told the story to their own friends, so that in time people I hardly knew were coming up to me and asking about the cheek-stroker story. They would create all kinds of scenarios about what kind of weirdo had been touching my face. They were inclined to point out any odd-looking character on the street and exclaim, "There he is! Annie's face-toucher!" I enjoyed how much fun they were having and I participated too, sharing my own ideas about the Toucher's true identity.

But there is something I never told them about this story. Something that I thought might take the fun out of it for them. The truth is, there was genuine warmth in that touch. I didn't feel then and I don't feel now that the Toucher was some sort of pervert. (Let's be honest here...if it was a pervert, would they have really gone for my face? Doubtful.) I was in such a miserable state at the time and that simple touch, even though I didn't particularly appreciate it in the moment, felt like the hand of a comforter. My mental image of the Toucher has always been the same - an old, frail, European-looking woman with a few gold teeth, wearing a long dress and a babushka. This is not totally random. When we left that day and walked back out to the car, I saw several people outside and one of them looked like the woman I just described. She didn't acknowledge me, but I just know it was her. I just know it.

Spring and Fall has come to feel a lot like that touch to me. It makes me feel like someone very old, from very far away, is reaching out from the past and trying to console me. But it took me some time to fully come around to this song. Even now, when I read the words of this poem, it feels a bit impenetrable. The first several times I listened to the song, I remember thinking that the music was beautiful but that I couldn't fully wrap my mind around the words. It wasn't until I saw Natalie perform the song live that it started to open up to me.

Natalie mentioned during her concert that the poet who wrote Spring and Fall, Gerard Manley Hopkins, said that this poem was meant to explain death to a child and that it was not directed to any particular child, even though he addresses Margaret at the beginning and end of the poem. I found that last part to be a little disappointing. I want Margaret to have been a real little girl, not just a representation. Nonetheless, the poet's choice to address his words to a specific, if fictional child, is very moving. Here is a quote from Natalie about the song (it's rather lengthy but so eloquently expressed that I couldn't bear to cut it down):

"I found a recurrent theme in poetry with loss of innocence and I started to see that in my child too. Even at a young age there's a deflowering that happens, an awakening to some of the harsh realities of life. And rather than pretend they don't exist, I think it's better, once they're exposed to it, to have a conversation and say it's a beautiful, terrible place we live in. And people can be evil and they can be good and I know this affects you. And that's why I started seeking out poems of lost innocence like the Charles Causley and the Robert Louis Stevenson, and definitely the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Spring Fall, which is the ultimate knife to the chest for a child - the question of why does everything have to die."*

The last line, "It is Margaret that you mourn for," is the most powerful part of the poem/song. I guess my first impression of what this meant was that when we grieve, we aren't really grieving for the person who we've lost, but for ourselves. The person we lost is not suffering, but we are left with the pain of their absence. But...I'm really dense about poetry (among other things.) Here are Natalie's thoughts about this line:

“When you see the death of anything, you see the death of everything. And you see the death of yourself."**

That makes a lot more sense. It makes me feel a little dumb and a lot grateful for people who are much more insightful than I could ever be. Which leads me to this request: I'm always curious about your thoughts on each song I cover on this blog, but I must say I am particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on this song. Do you find it moving? Too somber? Enlightening? Confusing? I really would like to know.

In closing, I have to say that as I write about this song I can't help but think of the song I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Break Your Heart. Obviously these songs are very different, but I find it interesting that as I think and write about each of these songs, the word "comfort" keeps coming up. Even though at first listen Leave Your Sleep might sound like a big departure from an album like Ophelia, it seems that whether she writes the words herself or borrows them from the past, Natalie Merchant always finds a way to comfort through her music. I'm truly grateful. And I'm sleeping better now than I used to.

Please feel free to comment below or to email me at Thanks for reading!

Click here to see a video of Natalie performing Spring and Fall

Download Spring and Fall at Itunes - Spring and Fall: to a Young Child - Leave Your Sleep

*Music OMH, April 2010
**NPR Morning Edition, April 2010

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