*Helplessly Hoping * was a favorite of mine in the late 60’s or early 70’s, whenever it was current, and ever since. I think it might have been on the first CS&N album. It seems to be about the difficulty of first meeting a girl, so it’s treating a pedestrian, everyday subject in a very dramatic way.
A salient element in its structure is front rhyme, alliteration, starting with the title itself. The first five words, which include the title, begin with “H". (See below for the lyrics). Then, lines 4 and 5 have three G-words, gasping, glimpses, gentle, as does the last line of Verse 1, the important word “good-bye,” which Stephen Stills elongates musically and vocally, but in a ‘downward,’ helpless, not an upbeat way.
Verse 2 starts off with five “W’s": Wordlessly watching he waits by the window and wonders … "
Then the “H’s” resume, with four in Line 5 of Verse 2, three of them contiguous. Three more occur in the last three lines of Verse 2, including the pivotal, central (both subject-wise and structurally) word of the song, “hello,” which SS again musically and vocally elongates and emphasizes, this time brightly and hopefully, not sadly or helplessly like the previous “good-bye.”
Verse 3 begins with five “S” sounds, including the soft-C “certain”: "Stand by the stairway, you’ll see something certain … "
Then there are two hard-C words, “confusion” and “cost.” And, aren’t they truly hard words? “Confusion” and “cost” are both hard things. Coincidence? I think not.
Continuing Verse 3, “Love isn’t lying … “ – those next three lines have six words starting with “L” : love, lying, loose, lady, lingers, lost.
Next, “choking” is emphasized, but harshly – not like the luxuriant, hoping elongation of “hello” back in Verse 2. Then, “on hello” is musically pleasant, hopeful – it’s the narrator’s ‘goal,’ but the girl is absolutely “choking on hello," and Stephen Stills communicates that idea musically as well as lyrically.
I usually abhor ‘lists’ in songs: “one person, two alone, three together, for each other.” I mentally recoil from anticipating going through the same list in the refrain of every verse. (Worse, Billy Joel’s famous ‘list’ song, whatever that dreadful thing was called – I forget – is wholly, totally, and simply a list.) But Helplessly Hoping’s ‘listing’ – one, two, three, four – never bothered me in the least, in fact I think that refrain is a complement to the song that shows Stephen Stills a master of his craft, fashioning something so inherently irritating as a list into pleasant and interesting verse.