Beginnings. One of the things I have most prized about working in the academy is the sense of beginnings. There is always a fresh start, with new students, new colleagues, new courses. Even old colleagues somehow look new in September, when the light of the sun seems especially bright, gearing up for a final summery blast before the inevitable decline, what Robert Frost in “The Oven Bird” called “that other fall we name the fall.” It has always seemed ironic to me that one begins anything in the fall, or that a sense of starting over should connect, visually, with the blood-bright failure of so much greenery. Emotionally, the school year ought to open in springtime, when the buds do: there would be a feeling in the air of everything starting over. But it doesn’t work that way. Somewhere, long ago, somebody thought up the notion that academic terms should begin in the fall: probably when the work of harvesting was over, so that farm boys could study with impunity. I often think of “Spring and Fall,” a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In it, the narrator happens upon a young girl, Margaret, who stands amid a typical autumn scene, with the golden leaves tumbling around her. For unknown reasons, she is weeping. The poet, more to himself than to the girl, concludes: . . . 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. . . . In other words, Margaret (like the narrator as well as the poem’s readers) must go the way of all leaves, whether or not she consciously knows it. When we feel sorry in the autumn, we are mourning our own mutability. On the other hand, the rhythm of the academic world runs counter to this natural grieving, so aptly symbolized by the seasons.
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