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Sunday, June 26, 2022

‘[I]n spring the soil swells’: Poetry’s favourite season through the ages

Krystalia Karamihou chronicles representations of spring in poetry.

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote” is how Chaucer famously begins his Canterbury Tales. The most beloved of seasons for many, when the world experiences botanical rebirth after the cold grey tones of winter, spring has been extolled in poetry perhaps more than any other season. Since antiquity, poets have associated spring with growth and celebration making their poems a joy to read this time of year.

The beauty of poetic diction has the potential to revitalise the diminished novelty that sometimes stems from an over-familiarisation with our surroundings, something we have all experienced in the last year. Wordsworth briefly touches this poetic power in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” published in 1802. Although his main aim in this introduction was to explain why he wrote poetry in simple diction, he also declares that, in writing about situations from common life, he wished to “throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way.” In this spirit, I would like to examine a few poets who do just this, allowing us all to fully see and embrace spring in all of its sun-dappled glory.

The refined simplicity of Ancient Greek lyric poetry lends itself well to this, particularly, in the carefree poem “Spring” by Anacreon, one of the Nine Lyric Poets. With strong elements of synesthesia, Anacreon invites readers to envision themselves strolling down a meadow, feeling the breeze that carries nature’s fragrant smells while a pretty girl whose heart is under Cypris’ influence (Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty) lies with them. Anacreon does not allude to any other thoughts or emotions that could intrude into this experience; it is as it is. Not a melancholy escape, not an opportunity for existential thinking, but a pleasant stroll that holds value in and of itself:

Pleasant ’tis abroad to stray
Thro’ the meadow deep in hay,
Where soft zephyrs, breathing low,
Odorous sweets around us throw:
Pleasant, where the gadding vine
Weaves a safe shade, to recline
With some dainty girl whose breast
Cypris wholly hath possest.

Virgil, in his Georgics, focuses on the the resurrection of nature witnessed during this season. Those familiar with canonical Western literature are aware that poets often referenced ancient Greco-Roman deities without, of course, believing in those deities themselves. It was rather a form of decorum due to neoclassical conventions. To me, the beauty of classical poetry lies in how those ancient people understood the union of the “natural” with the “divine”; a worldview largely lost in our present times. In Georgics, the union of the rain with the earth carries heavy ancient polytheistic undertones, serving to praise the gods for their life-giving powers:

Spring it is that clothes the glades and forests with leaves,
in spring the soil swells and carves the vital seed.
Then does Heaven, sovereign father, descend
in fruitful showers into the womb of his joyful consort and, mightily
mingling with her mighty frame, gives life to every embryo within.
(…) the bounteous earth prepares to give birth, and the meadows ungirdle
to the Zephyr’s balmy breeze; the tender moisture avails for all.

Going to the distant realm of the Mayans, the poem “Flower Song” with its rich earthly diction refers to the Flower Ceremony, a ritual designed to keep or bring back a lover. Naked maidens danced under the moonlight while throwing flowers into the water, believing it would turn into a love potion. The song was found in the book of the Songs of Dzitbalché, which contains most of the ancient Mayan lyric poetry that has survived:

We have brought plumeria flowers, chucum blossoms, dog jasmines;
we have the copal, the low cane vine, the land tortoise shell,
new quartz, chalk and cotton thread…

Already, already we are in the heart of the woods,
at the edge of the pool in the stone to await the rising
of the lovely smoking star over the forest.
Take off your clothes, let down your hair,
become as you were when you arrived here on earth,
virgins, maidens.

No discussion on spring poetry can omit Chaucer’s ”General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, which introduces a group of pilgrims as they set out for Canterbury. The beginning of the Prologue follows the tradition of reverdie, a medieval French dancing song genre originating with the troubadours, that welcomed the arrival of spring. Chaucer pens:

When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run.

With their closeness to nature, the Romantic poets have utilised spring imagery as few others have. Some focused on the relationship of man and nature, while others on their emotional response to nature’s vastness, the so-called Sublime. Some of my favourite lines from Romantic spring poetry are the following from Keat’s poem “I Stood tip-toe Upon a Little Hill” (read here in full). This was the first poem I read by Keats years ago, when I happened to look through the pages of a poetry collection at my university’s library. Although the diction is somewhat exaggerated by today’s standards, it gives a refreshing and colourful tone about nature:

Open afresh your round of starry folds,
Ye ardent marigolds!
Dry up the moisture from your golden lids,
For great Apollo bids
That in these days your praises should be sung
On many harps, which he has lately strung;
And when again your dewiness he kisses,
Tell him, I have you in my world of blisses:
So haply when I rove in some far vale,
His mighty voice may come upon the gale.

Such excerpts exemplify humans’ evolving perception of our relationship to spring and nature throughout time. What each reader may gain from reading spring poetry, and poetry in general for that matter, is a highly subjective experience, whether that is reading simply for fun, to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of poetic language, to let the lines stir their sensations, or to ponder over a deeper meaning.

For more poetry about spring, see here.

Image credit: Flickr (CC-0)

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