Jul. 28, 2007

Spring and Fall

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Poem: "Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Public domain

Spring and Fall
To a Young Child

Margaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, líke 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 spríngs are 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 Margaret you mourn for.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the philosopher Karl Popper (books by this author), born in Vienna (1902). He was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He came up with the theory that what defines a scientific idea is that it can be falsified. He realized that the real work of scientists is not to look for evidence that their theories are correct, but to look as hard as they can for evidence that their theories are false. The closest a scientist can ever come to proving that his or her theory is true is failing to find evidence that the theory is false. Popper used this same theory to argue that astrology, metaphysics, Marxist history, and Freudian psychoanalysis were not sciences, because there is no way they could ever be falsified.

Popper had just taken a job as a secondary school teacher when he published his ideas about science in his first book, The Logic of Discovery (1934). The book created a big stir in Europe, and Popper was invited to lecture in Paris, London, Cambridge, and Copenhagen. He became even more famous when he wrote his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), an analysis of totalitarianism that he began writing at the start of World War II. He argued that political leaders like Stalin and Hitler shared a mindset with philosophers like Plato and Marx in that they all believed that ideas were more important than individual people.

Popper spent much of his career arguing that too many philosophers were focused on arcane discussions of abstract ideas rather than problems that affected people in the real world. In 1946, he got into a famous debate with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein at the Cambridge Moral Science Club. There are differing accounts of what exactly happened, but according to Popper, the debate grew so heated that Wittgenstein pulled a poker out of the fire and began using it to punctuate his arguments in a threatening manner. Wittgenstein then challenged Popper to give an example of a universal moral principle. Popper responded, "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."

Karl Popper said, " Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve."

It's the birthday of British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (books by this author), born in Stratford, England (1844). He loved poetry as a kid, but when he was in college in 1866, he gave up poetry for Lent. That summer, he converted to Catholicism. Less than a week later, he burned all of his own poems and didn't write again for seven years. He went into a kind of exile, joined the Jesuits, and traveled to rural Wales to be ordained as a priest. Those months in Wales would be one of the happiest periods of his life. It was while he was there, in 1877, preparing for his ordination, that he realized he could continue to write poetry as long as he was using his poetry to praise God. And so, in that single year of 1877, Hopkins wrote most of the poems for which he is remembered today, poems like "God's Grandeur" (1877), "Pied Beauty" (1877), and "The Starlight Night," (1877). He wrote in his diary at the time, "This world is ... a book [God] has written ... a poem of beauty."

But after his ordination, the Jesuits sent him to teach the poor children of industrial cities in Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. Hopkins had looked forward to a life of hard work and sacrifice, but he had no idea how much he would hate living in these polluted, ugly cities. He wrote less and less, and finally, at the age of 44, he died from typhoid, which he'd caught from the polluted water in Dublin. He had published very few of his poems in his lifetime, and he might have been forgotten, except that he had kept up a lifelong correspondence with a friend from college: the poet Robert Bridges.

Hopkins had sent Bridges many of his poems, and after Hopkins's death, Bridges began to publish Hopkins's poetry.

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1927). He said, "I've always felt myself to be a rather frustrated composer who was trying to do with words what musicians are able to do with notes. The importance of meaning that's beyond expression in words is what I've always been attracted to."

He also said, "To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist's chief concern."

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