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Essay

Spring Ahead

Poets have a close relationship to this tender season.

Spring, like poetry, makes us humble. Poets have a perennially close relationship with this cruel and tender season, a time for celebration and renewal and a reminder of our powerlessness over creation. Robert Graves is said to have remarked that there are only three themes for poetry—love, death, and the changing of the seasons—and the poetry of spring treats them all, with inspiration to spare. A tour of some of this season’s best poems, from Sappho and Basho to Countee Cullen, offers a sense of the variety and breadth of traditions, strategies, and brilliance that enrich poetry itself. Margaret Walker observed spring as a homecoming:

my Mississippi Spring—
My warm loving heart a-fire
with early greening leaves …

Neruda captured the poet’s empathy with spring in the intimate phrase “at last the eyelids of the pollen open.” Consider the memorable close to E.E. Cummings’s “o sweet spontaneous earth,” with one of the most delightful line breaks in all of free verse:

true

to the incomparable
couch of death thy
rhythmic
lover

        thou answerest

them only with

                              spring)

In Amy Lowell’s “Lilacs,” the poet is transformed not into the nightingale but into earth:

Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England.

In Japan hundreds of years earlier, the transformative power of spring can be felt through the subtler means of synesthesia, intertwining sight and smell in this haiku by Basho:

Spring air
—     woven moon
and plum scent.

However it occurs, the loss of self to the unity of spring can feel like magic. It is a season ruled by its own classical goddess, Flora, as described in Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination”:

Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow'ry riches deck the plain.

Centuries after Wheatley, the supernatural impulse remains for the determinedly skeptical Robert Creeley in “The Door”:

My knees were iron, I rusted in worship, of You.

For that one sings, one
writes the spring poem, one goes on walking.

For Hafez, the Sufi poet, the season is a reminder that spiritual experience rests within the moment: “This meadow is composing a tale of a spring day in May; / The serious man lets the future go and accepts the cash now.” (From “The Garden,” translated by Robert Bly). For Gerard Manley Hopkins, who became a Jesuit priest, “Spring” inspires a meditation strikingly similar to Hafez’s, this time using the framework of Eden:

What is all this juice and all this joy? 
    A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy, 
    Before it cloud …

A natural outgrowth of such spiritual awakening, spring is a season of pilgrimage. Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, memorized by generations of college undergraduates (including myself), set the tone:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote …

But the tradition of spring as a journey existed long before Chaucer, as the following charming opening from the early 14th century suggests:

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
                  —Anonymous, 1310

Whatever the difficulties of life in England in the Middle Ages, it is clear from the spring poetry of that preindustrial period that the season was extraordinarily beautiful. One of my favorite spring poems, this Renaissance showstopper by Thomas Nashe, makes me feel transported to that time.

Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king
                                                                        …
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing:
             Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

Nashe’s onomatopoeia conveys the melodious annual babble that must have flooded the English countryside 500 years ago before industrialization threw songbird populations into sharp decline.

Birds, bees, flowers: this season has birthed much love poetry, of course, from the days of Sappho’s fragment “From Crete,” “With the flowers of spring, and breezes ... / flowing here like honey” to the romantic opening of Pound’s translation of the subdued Chinese love-poem “The River-Merchant’s Wife, A Letter”:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead,
I played about the front-gate, pulling flowers.
You came by ...”

Ever-new, ever-fertile, even in its rebellions and perversions, spring keeps inspiring. In fact, there is so much spring poetry that, unlike poetry of other seasons, spring poetry can easily be categorized according to months, each with a distinct flavor.

March poetry is daring, edgy. There isn’t as much poetry for this month as for the others, but what exists is passionate and distinctive. Dickinson was big on March.

March is the month of expectation,
The things we do not know,”
The Persons of prognostication
Are coming now.
             —poem 48, The Single Hound

March poems often convey a bittersweet message. It’s a time for rough beaches, as Elizabeth Bishop writes in “The End of March”:

It was cold and windy, scarcely the day 
to take a walk on that long beach.

Swinburne, in “March: An Ode,” grapples with the contradictions of the month’s “madness and might”:

That the sea was not lovelier than here was the land, nor the night than the day, nor the day than the night,
Nor the winter sublimer with storm than the spring: Such mirth had the madness and might in thee made,
March, master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite.

March can be rough and unpredictable, and when a poet does consider the month as a time of spring loveliness, the beauty can feel shockingly new. Shakespeare writes in The Winter’s Tale:

daffodils,

that come before the swallow dares, and take
the winds of March with beauty.

April, of course, is another story. This month has been celebrated, adored as the pinnacle and quintessence of spring from at least the time of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender. Could any month possibly be National Poetry Month but April? Poets aiming to do something memorable with this month need to try all the harder. And of course, the potential rewards are great. Was T.S. Eliot thinking of that other great long poem that embarks with the name “Aprille” when he opened his own ambitious masterwork with the word?

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire. …

For female poets, April poses a whole different set of challenges. For many centuries, pastoral tradition associated women with spring flowers. Maybe that’s why even supposedly “sentimental” women poets in the 20th century like to flaunt and play with the flowery versions of April. Edna St. Vincent Millay builds her unflinching tone from the confrontational opening of “Spring”:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.

to its unforgettably mocking ending:

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

If Millay wants more out of life than life alone, Sara Teasdale, struggling with a difficult love affair, seems to want less; she sketches a disturbing preview of her own grave in spring in that small masterpiece of the self-destructive revenge fantasy “I Shall Not Care”:

When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair.

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson takes a more worldly approach, dwelling at length on her urban disillusionment with spring in “Sonnet” before she consciously leads herself back to the “sweet real things” that “spring beneath your feet / In wistful April days. …” If April is alive with traditions of beauty and innocence, the poetry of May is far more “lusty,” to use Thomas Malory’s word. Even the bird tongue in Alice Cary’s “The Field Sweet-Brier” oozes its own kind of sensuality, manifest in the music of the lines:

All of the early and the latter May,
And through the windless heats of middle June,
Our green-armed brier held for us day by day,
The morning coolness till the afternoon;
And every bird that took his grateful share,
Sang with a heavenlier tongue than otherwhere.

Imagery of weddings, brides, the Queen of May, and pre-Christian traditions, such as the Maypole— often associated with fertility and with phallic symbolism—abound.

But I must gather knots of flowers and buds, and garlands gay,
For I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother, I'm to be Queen o' the May.
                                                                                   —Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The May Magnificat” connects the tradition of the May queen with the Christian Mary, who, as Hopkins writes, is “mothering earth.”

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why …

When the “mighty mother” is asked, “What is Spring?,” her answer evokes the miraculous connection between spiritual and physical growth: “Growth in every thing.”

The danger with spring, as with any repeated miracle, is the possibility of taking it for granted. “Sweet April showers / Do spring May flowers,” writes Thomas Tusser in his instructional poem “A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry” (1557). However charming the raw innocence of the familiar couplet in its native habitat, centuries later, we may be tempted to shake off the miracle as a truism. Even love itself is not immune:

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish'd dove;
In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
                                                                      —Tennyson, “Locksley Hall”

For poets who want to re-engage with the urgent reality of the season, one cure is to play against type—to temper cliché with the surprise of grief, humor, or pain. The assumption that joy is spring’s default emotion makes spring grief that much more shattering. In “Adonais,” written upon Keats’s death in 1821, Shelley achieves a quintessential spring elegy:

Grief made the young Spring wild, and she threw down
Her kindling buds, as if she Autumn were,
Or they dead leaves; since her delight is flown,
For whom should she have wak'd the sullen year?

A generation later, Whitman takes a subtler approach, weaving spring and mourning so tightly they seem inseparable in his elegy for Lincoln:

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

By the 20th century, had the bittersweet, ambivalent taste of spring mourning become too familiar for even passionate grief? Philip Larkin’s spring ennui in “The Trees” is laconic, jaded, but no less sad:

The trees are coming into leaf 
Like something almost being said; 
The recent buds relax and spread, 
Their greenness is a kind of grief. 

Robert Frost’s “Spring Pools” are even more energetically ominous. Summer is presented almost like a death; the pools “chill and shiver” and will “like the flowers beside them soon be gone,” sacrificed for the greater power of summer’s “dark foliage.” With spring’s shadow associations so firmly established, some 20th-century poets of spring have turned again to whimsy and humor. E.E. Cummings, in perhaps his most famous poem, made spring fresh and muddy by using a child’s perspective in “[in Just-]” and emphasizing smudges and balloons over birdsong and flowers. A spring haiku by Richard Wright is anchored with an unforgettable vignette:

Coming from the woods,
A bull has a lilac sprig
dangling from a horn.

And Countee Cullen brings in Keats to bolster his stance as a nature poet, using a light tone and playful rhyme to revel in both nature and poetic traditions in “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time:

Folks seeing me must think it strange
That merely spring should so derange
My mind. They do not know that you,
John Keats, keep revel with me, too.

In a situation that Camille T. Dungy has eloquently described and impressively addressed in her anthology Black Nature, African American poets have often been missing in conversations about nature in American nature poetry—a fact that adds poignant meaning to Cullen’s invocation of Keats. But Cullen’s feeling that in addressing spring, he is accompanied in spirit by poets of past traditions is one that it seems almost any poet who has experienced the season will be likely to share.

So many poets, of various eras, cultures, sensibilities, personal positionings, and aesthetics, have trodden this green, flower-filled season before us that, perhaps, it’s understandable if sometimes we want to stop thinking about how best to write about spring and just let ourselves revel as openly as possible in its innocent joys. For such times, perhaps something in the simplicity, trust, and directness of these lines from Herrick’s “Corrina’s going a-Maying,” written during the springtime of the English language itself, may speak for this season to poets and poetry lovers alike:

Rise; and put on your Foliage, and be seene
To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene.
  • Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...

Essay

Spring Ahead

Poets have a close relationship to this tender season.
  • Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...

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