Updated: Aug 5, 2021
The cruellest month, or the most beautiful time of the year? A few poetic responses to Spring.
It begins, like so many of the facets of English poetry, with Chaucer.
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,
The doghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour
[…] Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
These are the famous opening lines of his great (though uncompleted) work, The Canterbury Tales. A rough modern translation might go something like this: When April has with sweet showers undone the drought of March, and bathed every vine in water so as to bring forth flowers, that is the time when people go on pilgrimages.
Among other things, Chaucer was a supreme humourist, and though his playful comedy might be blurred by the passage of years, if you are willing to look there is something funny in these couplets, in particular the contrast between the sacred and profane. Hear the innuendo in “shoures soote” (sweet showers), “perced” (pierced) and “engendered”. The extended metaphor is that April, personified as a man (notice the male pronoun, “his”), pierces the ground, and showers it with life giving fluid. Spring is of course the time of new life, of fertility, and of budding groves. And what do people, according to Chaucer, get the urge to do at such a time? Go on a pilgrimage. Ah, yes. Because of course, as everybody knows, Spring is also about Christ rising from the dead, and so is also about Church.
This dichotomy between the natural and the cultural, or put another way, between sensual desires and religious obligation, has played itself out again and again in poetry across the ages. On the one hand, poets have wanted to give themselves up wholly to Spring, the sheer physical joy it represents. Hence Charlotte Mew:
This year's a different thing,—
I'll not think of you.
But I'll like Spring because it's simply Spring
As the thrushes do.
Or, in a similar vein, E.E. Cummings:
it’s Spring)and everyone’s in love and flowers pick themselves
But the there's the other side of the coin, the sense that for all its promise of new life, of pure uninhibited fun, Spring can't help but disappoint to us. Perhaps the most famous rebuttal to Chaucer's sweet showers comes in T.S Eliot's masterwork, The Wasteland, which begins,
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Notice how closely his lines echo Chaucer's: the personification of April, the reference to flowers, the “Dull roots” enlivened by rain, even the word “breeding” is a synonym for “engendering.” But something has changed for Elliot in the gap of centuries; the tone of Spring has darkened. Now the mixing of desires with memories (or as I called them above, obligations) is no cause for mirth. Instead it is seen as an act of cruelty. And Eliot is far from alone in feeling that the gap between Spring's promise and its reality is hard to bear. For instance his contemporary, Wallace Stevens's poem, “The Sun This March” begins on a similarly defeated note:
The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become
A few decades later on, Philip Larkin saw in the apparent rejuvenation of the trees bitter a reminder of his own advancing age, and then a further reminder that all living things are born to die.
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
If you set Cumming's childish delight in spring at one end of the spectrum, and Larkin's methodical killjoy-ing at the other, both stances can feel a little unsatisfactory. Perhaps a middle way can be found in the ever intelligent work of Elizabeth Bishop. Her poem, “A Cold Spring”, opens with an epigraph from Gerald Manley Hopkins, one of the great celebrants of God's presence in the natural world: “Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” he asserted. Here we have Bishop, a twentieth century poet (post-World War Two!), expressing the desire to return to a time of innocent veneration. But she knew it wouldn't be as simple as that to wipe the slate clean, to forget Elliot and his fellow nay-sayers. So the spring in her poem breaks slowly, cautiously, and builds its hesitant way to the giving of new life. And it is all the more moving, all the more beautiful, for it.
A cold Spring:
the violent was flawed on the lawn.
For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited,
carefully indicating their characteristics.
Finally a grave green dust
Settled over your big and aimless hills.
One day, in a chill white blast of sunshine,
on the side of one a calf was born.
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.