I imagine that for parents one of the most difficult teaching moments is helping a young child understand death, particularly the death of someone they love. Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant (if you are of a certain age, you may remember her from her 10,000 Maniacs days) found herself in just this position with her young daughter. Natalie’s closest friend who spent a lot of time with the Merchant family died and in the midst of her own pain she was looking for ways to talk about death with her daughter. She used Spring and Fall, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins and her music to create a hauntingly beautiful song. Take a listen. *
Márgarét, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! Ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Through worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child the name:
Sórrow’s springs áre all the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Márgarét your mourn for.
Priest and Poet
Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century Welsh poet “discovered” Catholicism through the writings of John Henry Newman and it was Newman who received him into the Church. He then entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained a Jesuit in 1877. Hopkins the priest and poet wrote what some call the best poetry of the Victorian era. Hopkins believed “that the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and has gift for looking at life through the eyes of God.
Merchant has produced an album called Leave Your Sleep that uses children’s poetry to help youngsters make sense of life’s most vexing challenges. In Hopkins’s poem she finds both the right feeling and the right images to guide a child through the loss of someone they love.
The Timelessness of the Catholic Tradition
I don’t know how Natalie found her way to Hopkins or whether she is a person of faith. I do know that the wisdom of the Catholic tradition is a wisdom for the ages. Catholic poetry of the Victorian era can find a home in religious books and in the music of a rocker turned Mom. Stories like this remind me of the evangelizing power of our faith which has always used art, music, poetry and drama as tools for evangelization. We need to take every advantage through preaching, teaching, faith sharing, storytelling, book groups and personal reading to acquaint ourselves with Catholic artists and be proud about pointing out when they or their work comes up in conversation that it is the work of the Catholic mind and spirit.
*(unfortunately, I can’t find a complete copy of the recording on-line.)