How light and shade - and joy and melancholy - converge when poets' thoughts turn to spring
Spring - it's pure poetry. It's all about lambs and daffodils and crocus and the hope of the year beginning again. Surely it's an inspiration to poets the world over.
"A light exists in spring," wrote Emily Dickinson. "Not present on the year/At any other period/When March is scarcely here... A colour stands abroad/On solitary hills/That science cannot overtake/But nature feels."
And yet, poetry about spring is often about the sadness that when spring appears, its brightness and beauty only signals its transience. Dickinson ends her spring reflections with the notion that this light passes away and leaves "a quality of loss".
Francis Ledwidge gave springa sense of lyricism - and then a rueful remembrance - in his Spring and Autumn: "Green ripples singing down the corn/With blossoms dumb the path I tread/And in the music of the morn/One with wild roses on her head." But: "Now the green ripples turn to gold/And all the paths are loud with rain/I with desire am growing old/And full of winter pain."
The irony and tragedy was that he wouldn't live to grow old; he died in the hell of Passchendaele during the First World War at the age of 30.
Shakespeare, DH Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennyson, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and Rabbie Burns are among the many poets inspired by spring, in varying degrees of uplift and disappointment.
Shakespeare is snide about spring, warning married men that they may well be deceived when the sap rises and merry larks abound: "The cuckoo then, on every tree/Mocks married men: for thus he sings: Cuckoo! Cuckoo! - O word of fear/Unpleasing to a married ear."
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Spring is full of symbolism, but again all the rejoicing of nature only serves to remind Burns how lonely and unhappy he is. The merry ploughboy may cheer his team: "But life to me's a weary dream/A dream of ane that never wauks… And everything is blest but I." If you're sad and lonely, cheerfulness around you just underlines your doleful state.
Even the poet most associated with spring, Wordsworth, noted that he wandered "lonely as a cloud", and though the daffodils filled him with joy, he recalls that brief joy later "in vacant or in pensive mood".
Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, marks spring with elegiac thoughts of fall, addressing a young child: "Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;/And yet you will weep, and know why./Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow's springs are the same."
Edna St Vincent Millay, the American feminist poet, uses spring thoughts in a sonnet not to celebrate the season, but to remember the lost love of youth. "You go no more on your exultant feet/Up paths that only mist and morning knew/Or watch the wind, or listen to the beat/Of a bird's wings too high in air to view…"
In another poem entitled Spring, she writes: "April comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers." Doesn't April realise that "life is an empty cup"?
Matsuo Basho, the 17th-century Japanese poet, regarded spring as an opportunity to wish his life away: "First day of spring/I keep thinking about/the end of autumn." Another Japanese bard, Princess Shikishi (died 1201), wrote of spring: "The cherry blossoms/have lost their fragrance./You should have come/Before the wind."
But there are spring poems which sound a note of unmixed joy. Thomas Nashe, the Elizabethan poet and pamphleteer, gives it the full monty in Spring, The Sweet Spring: "Spring, the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king/Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring… The fields breathe sweet/the daisies kiss our feet/Young lovers meet, old wives a-sunning sit."
In past times before central heating and electric light, perhaps the coming of clement weather really did mean a renewed merriment.
William Allingham, an unfairly neglected poet from Ballyshannon in Donegal, wrote appreciatively of nature and "the vernal world, and unexhausted seas/Of flowing life" in his In a Spring Grove. "Here the white-ray'd anemone is born/Wood-sorrel, and the varnished buttercup…"
Lucy Maud Montgomery, the Canadian author of Anne of Green Gables, welcomed spring, with no darker underlying thoughts, in her Spring Song. "Hark, I hear a robin calling!/List, the wind is from the south!/And the orchard-bloom is falling/Sweet as kisses on the mouth." She sees in spring every happy signal of hope: "Come and let us seek together/Springtime lore of daffodils/Giving to the golden weather/Greeting on the sun-warm hills."
Charlotte Mary Mew, who died almost unknown in 1928, associated spring with shy love: "I so liked spring last year/Because you were here;/The thrushes too/Because it was these you so liked to hear/I so liked you."
But the laurel crown for celebrating spring in poetry must surely remain with Robert Browning, who expresses that perfect rapture when, for a brief shining moment, all is wondrously in accordance with nature. "The year's at the spring/And the day's at the morn;/ Morning's at seven;/The hill-side's dew-pearled;/The lark's on the wing;/The snail's on the thorn;/God's in his Heaven/All's right with the world!"