Here is the poem "Spring" by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring–
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden's garden. -– Have, get, before it cloy.
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

The book I use for the SAT preparation asks about the tone of the poem. There are two answer choices I have a problem with:

A) meditative and reverent.
B) respectful yet admonishing.

In my opinion, the tone is not admonishing which made me eliminate choice B. A is actually a correct answer choice, but I am a bit confused by the explanation to this question. In regard to the incorrect answer choice B, the explanation says that "there is nothing respectful about [the poem]."
However, as far as I understand, "respectful" and "reverent" are actually synonyms with "reverent" having a deeper, more intense, feeling of respect towards something.
My question is: How can there be then "nothing respectful about" the poem if the tone is meditative and reverent?
Thank you for any help and suggestions!

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Your understanding of the two words is correct. In fact, the dictionary defines reverent as:

Feeling or showing deep and solemn respect.

So the difference is entirely one of strength of feeling. Yet that difference is enough to separate the two options given for your answer.

The poem is broken into two verses - I took the liberty of editing your question to show this. The first is, inarguably, a lyrical evocation of the beauty of springtime. The second, however, is more opaque. It uses negative words like "cloud", "sour" and "sinning". The subject of the final line is unclear. It is possible to read these sentiments as "admonishing" - the question is designed to test whether you have understood what the verse means.

In fact, the "maid" referred to in the final line is the Virgin Mary, Christ's mother. Her mention is prefigured by the "descending blue", the "blooms" and "low heavens" (i.e. the sky) of the first verse, blue being a colour associated with Mary. This second verse is "meditative", pondering whether the lush pleasures of springtime can be related, directly, to Eden and later the virginal nature of Christ's birth.

To return to the given answers, then, "reverence" may be a solemn respect, but it also has religious overtones. In some denominations, a priest is known as "reverend" and one may "revere" a religious book or symbol. So to be "meditative and reverent" correctly implies that the purpose of the poem is one of religious philosophy, whereas "respectful yet admonishing" plays down the religious element.

Also, though, if "reverent" implies a deeper level of "respect", it is conceivable that one could "respect" an idea but still criticise (or "admonish") it. If you "revere" that idea, however, it implies you have bought into it entirely, to a level where you are unlikely to offer any degree of criticism - indeed you are more likely to want to spend time "meditating" upon it. So even without the religious element there is enough difference between the two words for the answer options to make sense.

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