While "Spring and Fall" is addressed "to a young child," we should first point out that this was not Gerard Manley Hopkins's own kid. He was a Jesuit priest, so he never had any children. In fact, he was such a devout Jesuit priest that he almost stopped writing poetry altogether. He thought that writing poetry was all about individual ambition and desires, and as a priest, he wanted to do away with all those pesky individual desires. Luckily for us, though, he changed his mind.
What made him change his mind? We're so glad you asked! Hopkins had some rather unusual philosophical views: he thought that every person and object in the universe, from your desk to the apple in your lunch to your next door neighbor to your uncle's cat, had a completely unique set of qualities that set that thing or person apart from everything else. He called that uniqueness a person or object's inscape. This is a totally made-up word. (As you'll realize when you read "Spring and Fall," Hopkins liked making up words.)
Hopkins thought that by writing about an object's unique characteristics in poetry, he could bring himself (and his readers) closer to the God that created that uniqueness. So, after taking a break from writing poetry to work all this out, he started up again and wrote some of the most stunningly beautiful and unusual poetry of the Victorian period. (For more about Hopkins's religion and life, also check out the "In a Nutshell" sections for "God's Grandeur" and "The Windhover." And read those poems, too, while you're at it!)
Take "Spring and Fall," for example. Written in 1880, but not appearing in print until 1918, this is just full of graceful linguistic flourishes that have come to be the hallmarks of Hopkins's writing. And can we blame him for wanting to be beautiful here? After all, he's breaking some pretty hard news to a little girl named Margaret. Or is he? On one hand, it's tempting to think of "Spring and Fall" as an inner monologue on the part of its speaker. It would be pretty harsh to do what this speaker does, which is to tell a child that she only thinks that she's crying over the dying leaves in the autumn, but that she is actually crying because she knows that she's the one who is going to die someday.
Man, that's cold. And it's probably not something that most people would point out to a little kid even if they say it in a gentle and tender way, as the speaker of "Spring and Fall" does. Whether this is meant as a direct address or not, though, Hopkins is dealing with a difficult truth in a way that is truly his own: through playful and spectacular twirls of language.
As the title suggests, "Spring and Fall" is a poem about contrasts: age and youth, death and life, fall and spring. But more than that, it's about the moment in a child's life when she or he suddenly realizes that childhood doesn't last forever—someday, children grow up, grow old, and die. Wait, are we bumming you out?
Sorry about that, but Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it like he sees it. Part of the message of this poem is that death is a fact of life—it is the "blight man was born for," as he says in line 14—and so everyone, at some point, needs to face up to this.
So, unless you've discovered the secret of eternal youth or of immortality (in which case, please clue us in!), this poem has a message that everyone—and we do mean everyone—can relate to.