In each age poets have used beautiful descriptions of spring to say something about the human condition, about love, grief, and a deeper reality beneath spring’s beauty, or just a realistic description of how spring transforms the world. These poems span over two millennia, but are as fresh and stirring as when they were first composed.
To celebrate the arrival of spring I have chosen nine poems from nine poets. Two are Classical (Horace and Ovid); one a Chinese woman poet; and from the High Middle Ages, the Troubadours; Chaucer and Shakespeare; from Japan, the master of haiku, Matsuo Bashō; John Clare, an authentic peasant poet; and finally, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a great innovator in poetry.
Many more excellent poems from all ages deserve to be included here, but for reasons of space and a desire to present a variety of poems across time and cultures, I have chosen these nine.
The Roman poet Horace (65 – 8 BC) was most influenced by the materialist philosopher Epicurus, who taught that the best way to live life was to be modest in our desires and to attain ataraxia (freedom from fear) and apoinia (absence of pain). These doctrines make, I would submit, Epicureanism (with a mixture of Stoicism) the Western analogue of Buddhism. The poem selected here from Odes, Book I, no. 4, “To Sestus”, starts off as a Classical Greek pastoral, but eventually leads up to a lesson about carpe diem (seize the day), for we never know when death will find us.
Fierce winter slackens its grip: it’s spring and the west wind’s sweet change:
the ropes are hauling dry hulls towards the shore,
The flock no longer enjoys the fold, or the ploughman the fire,
no more are the meadows white with hoary frost.
Now Cytherean Venus leads out her dancers, under the pendant moon,
and the lovely Graces have joined with the Nymphs,
treading the earth on tripping feet, while Vulcan, all on fire, visits
the tremendous Cyclopean forges.
Now its right to garland our gleaming heads, with green myrtle or flowers,
whatever the unfrozen earth now bears:
now it’s right to sacrifice to Faunus, in groves that are filled with shadow,
whether he asks a lamb, or prefers a kid.
Pale death knocks with impartial foot, at the door of the poor man’s cottage,
and at the prince’s gate. O Sestus, my friend,
the span of brief life prevents us from ever depending on distant hope.
Soon the night will crush you, the fabled spirits,
and Pluto’s bodiless halls: where once you’ve passed inside you’ll no longer
be allotted the lordship of wine by dice,
or marvel at Lycidas, so tender, for whom, already, the boys
are burning, and soon the girls will grow hotter.
(Translation by A. S. Kline)
Ovid (43 BC – AD 17/18)
Ovid was a Roman poet whose voice resonates powerfully in Western literature, especially in Dante, but also in Shakespeare, for example in Sonnet 98, chosen for this collection for its description of spring. Metamorphoses was one of his masterpieces. Tragically, at the height of his renown, Ovid committed some political or personal misstep that brought down the ire of the Emperor Augustus who exiled him to Tomis on the west coast of the Black Sea (modern Constanţa in Rumania), then inhabited by the barbarian Scythian tribes of Iranian origin. He lived out the last decade of his life in Tomis.
One of Ovid’s many talents was his attention to the telling detail. To the familiar story of the abduction of Proserpine (Persephone) by Pluto, god of the Underworld, Ovid adds a poignant detail. Proserpine, the very embodiment of spring, had been gathering flowers with her maids when Pluto carried her off. Ovid tells us how the flowers fell from her lap:
The vi’lets from her lap, and lillies fall:
She misses ’em, poor heart! and makes new moan;
Her lillies, ah! are lost, her vi’lets gone.
Arthur Mainwaring (trans.) in Sir Samuel Garth’s edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, (1717).
This detail must have impressed Dante (Purgatorio XXVIII 49-51), where “deprived of spring” means both the season and its flowers. This detail is also mentioned in Canto XCIII of Ezra Pound’s Section Rock-Drill: De los Cantares (1956). Pound admired the combination of Classical myth and Christianity in Dante.
Li Qingzhao (1084-ca. 1151)
Regarded as China’s finest woman poet, Li Qingzhao lived a life as full of blessings as misfortunes. Both she and her husband were born into wealthy families closely connected with different factions at the Song Dynasty court, and both were very knowledgeable and avid collectors of calligraphy and ancient works of art. They also lived at a time when the northern half of China was invaded by the Jurchen (later called the Manchu) tribesmen from Manchuria. The nation was devastated and whole populations fled south for protection. Li Qingzhao and her husband suffered a change of fortune at court, too, that led to her husband’s losing his official positions and being forced into retirement. Moreover, in their various flights their enormous and valuable collections were left behind or destroyed or stolen.
Her marriage was nevertheless happy, and her husband was in time reinstated and the false charges against him were dismissed. This had the consequence of his being sent to various towns and cities to serve as magistrate for long periods away from his wife. Many of her poems lament these separations. On one of these journeys to take up a post, her husband died of typhoid in 1129, when Qingzhao was 45. For the next 22 years remaining in her life, Qingzhao continued her collecting and writing poetry, which now took on a darker cast.Traditionally, nature is thought to reveal the Way (Tao), and the power of poetry to evoke the beauty and mystery of the natural world made it the most admired of all the arts. Poems typically begin with a depiction of woodlands, mountains, streams, weather and wildlife, then the rest of the poem, usually obliquely and subtly, shows how these scenes are symbols of personal feelings, and more often than not, comments or implied criticism of court life or the Emperor’s policies. Even the charming folk songs in The Book of Odes, some of oldest ever recorded in the world, were known to every educated person and given political or moral interpretations to fit the moment. The majority of Chinese literature has this didactic aspect. In fact, when Qingzhao was young she wrote satirical songs about her political enemies that were admired for their acerbic wit. As she aged she abandoned these attacks and adopted a more tolerant attitude.
Thus the poem here begins by describing late spring, after the burgeoning of flowers, and implies a parallel between this fading of spring and her feelings of lassitude and loss. The next part tells us of her reluctance to visit Twin Springs, where people come from even great distances to view its beauty, because she fears her little skiff will founder under the weight of her grief. Especially poignant is her reference to her “grasshopper of a boat”.
The fragrance of vanished flowers still hangs in the still air.
Late afternoon, yet too tired to comb my hair.
Same old world, but without him everything has come to a halt.
Tears flow before I can get out even one word.
I heard that over by Twin Streams spring is in full bloom,
So I plan to go in my skiff.
I only fear that at Twin Streams my grasshopper of a boat
Cannot carry the weight of my grief.
The Troubadours (1100–1350)
The Troubadours wrote lyric poetry in Old Provençal (the medieval form of Modern Occitan in southern France, close to Catalan), mostly on the themes of chivalry and courtly love, but sometimes on political themes. Often the woman being wooed was cruel to her suitor, who had to beg for some token of her love. Since until relatively recently, marriages in Europe were arranged by families for every purpose except romantic love, a wife often felt unloved and neglected. Hence the many poems and songs about illicit love. The painting below by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, entitled Paolo and Francesca (1819), depicts just such a story. Francesca had been forced into a marriage to heal a rift between her family, the Polentas, and her husband’s family, the Malatestas. Her husband, Giovanni, was a military leader who had been crippled in battle. Francesca and her husband’s brother, Paolo, also married, fell in love and carried on an affair for ten years before being found out. Giovanni discovered them and slew them both.
No less a poet than Dante greatly admired the troubadours and even composed poems in Old Provençal, although he consigned Bertran de Born, one of the great troubadour poets to Hell, where he is condemned for all eternity to carry his severed head as a lantern. However, in Purgatorio XXVI, 140-147, another great troubadour, Arnaut Daniel, answers Dante in Old Provençal, that is, Dante composed a poem in the language of the troubadours. Dante calls him, through the character of Guinizzelli (Purgatorio XXVI 115ff) il miglior fabbro, the better artisan.
Here is Bernart de Ventadorn’s famous poem on the ecstasy of spring:
When I see the lark a-moving
For joy his wings against the sunlight,
Who forgets himself and lets himself fall
For the sweetness which goes into his heart;
Ai! what great envy comes unto me for him whom I see so rejoicing!
I marvel that my heart melts not for desiring.
Alas! I thought I knew so much
Of Love, and I know so little of it, for I cannot
Hold myself from loving
Her from whom I shall never have anything toward.
She hath all my heart from me, and she hath from me all my wit
And myself and all that is mine.
And when she took it from me she left me naught
Save desiring and a yearning heart.
(Translation by Ezra Pound)
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400)
I will only comment that before our very eyes we witness the invention of the language and rhythms that have led to six centuries of English literatures.
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye.
(Translation by Nevill Coghill (1899-1980)
Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
I will just note here that Shakespeare would have been familiar with Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1575 and subsequent editions), and may have had in mind XV 204 – 7, “becommeth lyke a lusty youth” when he wrote “spirit of youth” in line three (see The Sonnets, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, 1996, Cambridge University Press, p. 206).
Not unlike the Troubadours, Shakespeare begins with a pastoral description of spring, but then relates it to love, in this case separation from the beloved.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Bashō, the greatest master of haiku in Japanese literature, lived most of his life either in his simple thatched hut (replaced now and then by his students) or on the road, traveling mainly on foot, covering many remote corners of Japan’s main island of Honshu. He was a lay Zen monk who devoted himself to poetry, calligraphy and painting. He was famous in his own lifetime, but yearned for solitude and a frugal existence. He is mostly known for his travelogue, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which combines the journal of his observations of people, places, festival, weather and the beauty of nature with the haiku they inspired. In the two first haiku here spring is summed up in a terse observation about sights and smells. The second haiku is more mysterious, hinting in the Zen manner at a deeper, mystical reality. In just a few words it suggests we may usually see reality only superficially, and that if great mountains are nameless, who are we with our egos?
Spring air ―
And plum scent.
(On Love and Barley, trans. Lucien Stryk. Penguin, 1985, pp. 11, 31).
A nameless mountain
In thin haze.
(p. 94 – Stephen Addiss, The Art of Haiku. (2012). Boston & London: Shambala).
This last haiku I cannot resist including, even though it has nothing to do with spring. It reminds me of the incident recorded by the great Chinese sage of Taoism, Zhuang Zi (369 – ca. 286), in which he tells us of his happy dream of being a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. When he awakens he wonders if he is now a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuang Zi.
Octopus pot ―
In summer moonlight.
(Addiss, 2012, p.103).
What is the octopus dreaming of? Its freedom in the seas? Or perhaps Bashō has become the octopus and is seeing the Moon and the world from its point of view. In Zen one must become whatever one is trying to understand.
John Clare (1793-1864)
John Clare is a much undervalued poet. He wrote almost exclusively about the countryside of his Northamptonshire, but unlike in the troubadours and the Classical poets going back to Sappho, and unlike in the Chinese poets of every era, the seasons and Nature in his poems were not symbolic or evocative of human emotion, but were rather accurate descriptions of the beauty he saw about him from childhood to old age. He rarely left his native Northamptonshire, except for brief stays in London. And except for a few years when his collections sold well, he lived in obscurity and poverty. In 1841 his increasing delusions led to his being committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he lived out the remaining 23 years of his life.
In “Young Lambs” his intense first-hand experience with local fauna and flora are lovingly portrayed down to every detail, such as the order in which spring flowers emerge. The little lamb lying in a patch of sun, absolutely still and impervious to sound or passers-by will be familiar to cat-owners.
The spring is coming by a many signs;
The trays are up, the hedges broken down,
That fenced the haystack, and the remnant shines
Like some old antique fragment weathered brown.
And where suns peep, in every sheltered place,
The little early buttercups unfold
A glittering star or two–till many trace
The edges of the blackthorn clumps in gold.
And then a little lamb bolts up behind
The hill and wags his tail to meet the yoe,
And then another, sheltered from the wind,
Lies all his length as dead–and lets me go
Close bye and never stirs but baking lies,
With legs stretched out as though he could not rise.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Hopkins was a frail, slight man of scholarly demeanor who, despite entreaties from friends and family, decided to leave his High Anglican faith and not only convert to Catholicism, but become a Jesuit. Although he was drawn to extreme acts of asceticism, Hopkins was by nature a delicate poet and was not really cut out for the rigors of Jesuit life. He struggled, too, with his natural drive to compose poetry and his belief that poetry was a distraction from religious contemplation. In 1868, at the age of 24, he burnt all his poetry and abstained from writing poetry for the next seven years, much as Tolstoy stopped writing for religious reasons. Both Hopkins and Tolstoy in the end could not resist the need to write. In Hopkins’s case, he took up poetry again in 1875, just fourteen years before his untimely death from typhoid. Even in those final years he tormented himself with the old internal conflict between writing poetry, seen as worldly and egotistical, and religious devotion, seen as humble and self-effacing. He ended his life as an overworked professor of Greek at University College, Dublin, where he added to his burdens by being excessively scrupulous. He would wake up in the middle of the night to remark a student’s paper, obsessed with doubts about whether he had been entirely fair.
His poetry is a conscious return to the features of Anglo-Saxon (and Welsh) poetry, such as alliteration, so prominent in this poem about spring:
Thrush eggs look little low heaven and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
Hopkins is considered an heir of Keats, but where Keats was secular, Hopkins was religious, relating the natural world to Catholic doctrines, as here in the last stanza:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
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, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Despite his suffering, much of it self-inflicted, Hopkins on his deathbed was heard to say, “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”
– Robert Fisher
Illustrations courtesy Wikipedia Commons
This article is part of our issue BREAKING DORMANCY.